Vijay Iyer, jazz musician and 2013 MacArthur Fellow
Vijay Iyer, jazz musician and 2013 MacArthur Fellow

Jazz musician Vijay Iyer started playing the violin when he was 3, but when he was 4 or 5, he wanted to play another instrument: the piano.

“The piano was around because my sister was taking lessons, and so I just started messing on it and figuring things out little by little,” Iyer told NPR. “I can’t really pinpoint the beginning of it.”

Mainly self-taught, the New York-based jazz composer and pianist performs worldwide with his trio, quartet and quintet, among other groups. His album Historicity topped the 2009 Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, and was one of the most critically acclaimed jazz albums of 2009. His album Solo features original compositions, as well as covers of classic tunes by Duke Ellington and Michael Jackson.

Over the past decade, Iyer has established himself as one of the freshest, most compelling jazz leaders in the field, often collaborating with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa to combine elements of South Indian classical music with traditional Western jazz. Though he has degrees in both math and physics, Iyer says the mathematical components of his compositions come more from the music of South India than from anything he learned in the classroom.

With academic training in music cognition, Iyer complements his musicianship with writings for both specialist and general audiences that investigate the ever-shifting relationship between culture, perception, and aesthetics. Through his wide-ranging body of work, Iyer is creating a unique voice in diverse musical contexts while reaffirming the place of music not just as entertainment but as an essential part of human society.

This year, Iyer is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In January 2014, Iyer will join the Harvard University Department of Music as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.

Asian American Arts Alliance gala
Asian American Arts Alliance gala

Iyer will also be honored at the Asian American Arts Alliance’s 31st Anniversary Gala Benefit, which will take place on Tuesday, October 15, 2013 from 6:30 to 9:30pm at TriBeCa Rooftop. Iyer will be honored along with visual artist & fashion designer Richard Tsao.

To promote the gala, the Asian American Arts Alliance recently interviewed Iyer. What follows is their conversation, in which he shares his thoughts on heroes, achievement, and happiness:

Where were you born?
Albany, NY.

How long have you been in New York?
I moved to the city 15 years ago.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Malcolm X, Zakir Hussain, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, M.I.A., Randy Weston, Robin D.G. Kelley, Vijay Prashad, George Lewis, Alice Coltrane, Nelson Mandela…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Balance. Being in the moment. Transformation. Doing the right thing. Making a difference in people’s lives.

If not you, who would you be?
I’ve already been at least three different people, and hope to become a few more in this lifetime.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Doing what I love, and making it the center of my life.

What is your motto?
Do what you love, and make it the center of your life.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
In a just world. You’re all invited.

What are you looking forward to on the night of the Asian American Arts Alliance Gala?
Meeting some amazing people, learning something new about the world, and drinking a little too much.

To purchase tickets for the Asian American Arts Alliance gala, visit http://aaartsalliance.org/page/31st-gala.

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One thought on “REPRESENT ASIAN | Self-taught jazz pianist Vijay Iyer: a professorship, a MacArthur Fellow and an A4 honoree

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