switched on pop

For Vijay Iyer, Jazz Isn’t About Coolness — It’s About Defiance

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

When you think of jazz, you might think of La La Land, luxury car commercials, or fancy dinner parties. Cool, sophisticated, complex, jazz today seems to signify the epitome of class and taste. For pianist Vijay Iyer, that view gets the music completely wrong. Jazz isn’t cool. Jazz is countercultural. Jazz isn’t a dying art, jazz is alive and relevant. Jazz isn’t about virtuosity and technique, it’s about fighting racism and injustice. And for these reasons, maybe we shouldn’t be calling this music “jazz” at all.

With a trio of Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, Iyer has recorded a new album, Uneasy, that continues the defiant political legacy of improvised music. Through songs that tackle the Flint water crisis, the murder of Eric Garner, and social unrest, Iyer connects his music to the key issues of our day without singing a word. While his songs are borne out of our chaotic present and crackle with fierce urgency, they also reach back to elders like John Coltrane, Geri Allen, and Charles Mingus — musicians who never shied away from a fight. On this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, Iyer spoke to co-host Nate Sloan about the fault lines between music and activism, and why the term “jazz” is something to be sold rather than celebrated.

Nate Sloan: Tell me about the themes on your new album, Uneasy.

Vijay Iyer: We were in the studio in December of 2019, which was certainly like the throes of U.S. madness under a genocidal fascist regime. And the three of us [Iyer, Oh, and Sorey] as different artists of color faced that in different ways. That was all before the pandemic. And then the incredible uprising that kicked off last summer — not just in the U.S., but worldwide, to police violence and anti-Black violence in particular.

When you see a movement like that, it’s about hope, right? It’s about people fighting for their futures. And so we were in this environment that felt like apocalypse, this sense of ending of worlds. That was the tone of the conversation. And yet then there was this gesture of fighting for the world to come. So I guess I found myself right in the middle of all that, trying as an artist to imagine a future for this music.

I want to talk about a specific song from the album, “Children of Flint.” It’s one of the most overtly political titles in the collection, and I hear it as a reference to the Flint water crisis. Is there a parallel between the dynamic of playing in an improvisational trio and the political reference in the song title?

I mean, that’s a good question, and maybe is best left as a question. In a way, that’s sort of what a song title does: It poses a question for you. “What might this group of sounds do with that reality out in the world?” I remember we had done a few takes of it, and it’s not that easy to play, actually. Sometimes when musicians get into this thing of like, “Oh, I’m playing something that’s hard,” then they start playing it hard.

It sort of becomes about achievement. And finally, we arrived at this realization: That’s not what this is about. That’s not what it’s for. So in fact, we had to kind of back off from it and make something that was gentler and more spacious, that invited the listener in to be in a space with us that’s based on contemplation.

I wanted to say subdued, but maybe that’s not the right word. Maybe more like, haunted. Yeah. That’s how I would put it. And then I also wanted it to be something I would feel comfortable playing for children. Like this is a song for the children of Flint, and it basically is asking people to support the children of Flint. So how am I doing that, you know? How can the aesthetic of the song serve that movement or serve that community?

You referenced “Children of Flint” being hard to play. And that makes me think of the second selection on this album, which is called “Combat Breathing” and features an unusual and difficult time signature of 11/8. What led you to this time signature? Or if it happened more organically, what function do you think it serves within the track? 

This piece was first written in December of 2014 as the score to a collective action at Brooklyn Academy of Music. That particular moment, as you may recall, that was the year that Michael Brown was killed. It was the year that Tamir Rice was killed, and it was the year that Eric Garner was killed. And then I was commissioned to play this solo piano piece at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

And in fact, what I chose to do was give all the commission money to this collective called Dancing While Black to have them perform at the event. What they did was stage a die-in that basically was a way of not starting the show. And as I played this piece, they stood up to face the audience, which was a mostly white audience.

It was about that moment of confrontation. And for me, that 11/8 meter was about Eric Garner, his final utterances, which were those eleven times saying “I can’t breathe.” And so that is the eleven that this piece is actually carrying. It’s 11 measures, and it’s 11 beats per measure. And the baseline in that phrase is about both the tragedy of it and the defiance of that movement that was the Black Lives Matter movement as it was being born. So it was really about serving that movement. And that’s basically what this piece is trying to do.

I see a lot of publications refer to you as a jazz pianist, but I also see that you don’t use that term. “Creative music” is a label that you use when required to. Why might you want to avoid the term “jazz?” What might be some of the limitations of it as applied to the sounds that you’re engaged in?

Well, first of all, the fact is that Black musicians have resisted that word for a hundred years. So I learned that from elders, that this is not the word for us. There’s a famous interview with [saxophonist John] Coltrane from 1966, when he was in Japan, and the interviewer asked him something about, “What’s your opinion on the state of jazz today?” or something like that. And he responds, “Jazz is the word they use to sell our music. But to me, that word does not exist.” So all I’m saying is that I did not make this up. The more famous quote is probably Duke Ellington’s line, “Well, there’s two kinds of music, good music, and the other kind.”

There’s all of these moments where artists have strategically resisted that word, because what it does is limit what they seek to do And it revokes their ability to define their work on their own terms.

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For Vijay Iyer, Jazz Isn’t Cool, It’s Defiant