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ALLY: FROM NOUN TO VERB

PIANIST, COMPOSER, SCHOLAR, public intellectual, and artist, Vijay Iyer is a recipient of a MacArthur genius grant and is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard University. His work is deeply rooted in black musical traditions, though he also draws on his South Asian heritage, European concert music, experimentalism, and an array of influences across time and space. In the course of twenty-five years, Iyer has put out at least twenty-one albums as a leader, most recently Mutations (with a string quartet), a trio recording titled Break Stuff, duo recordings with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith (A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke) and pianist Craig Taborn (The Transitory Poems), and Far From Over with his sextet.

I first met Vijay in the late 1990s. We were part of the Jazz Study Group, a small assemblage of writers, artists, scholars, and musicians that gathered every couple of months at Columbia University to discuss the music from an interdisciplinary perspective. Vijay certainly stood out, having left California with a PhD in music and cognitive science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a unique musical and political experience as part of the Asian Improv movement founded by pianist Jon Jang and saxophonist Francis Wong, radical musicians anchored in black music, Asian-Pacific diasporic traditions, and a revolutionary commitment to social justice. Vijay brought to the New York music scene an unusual level of innovation and openness, but his refusal to treat music as a set of bounded, discrete cultural traditions, not to mention his name and brown skin, often led critics to listen for “Indianness” in everything he did. But he and many of his contemporaries pushed against all of these boundaries, and they pushed against the racism within the industry that not only pigeonholed artists but limited their ability to make a living.

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About Boston Review

Allies is the first publication of Boston Review's newly inaugurated Arts in Society department. A radical revisioning of the magazine's poetry and fiction, the department unites them—along with cultural criticism and belles lettres—under a project that explores how the arts can speak directly to the most pressing political and civic concerns of our age, from growing inequality to racial and gender regimes, a disempowered electorate, and a collapsing natural world.