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Jazzing away to glory

Vijay Iyer is one of the new stars of jazz. Pravasi Bharatiya Samman

india Updated: Feb 14, 2003 15:45 IST

Dubbed one of the "new stars of jazz" and one of "today's most important pianists," Vijay Iyer is among the rare few of Indian heritage who have crossed the race barrier to make it into jazz, usually regarded as out of bounds for South Asians.

Jazz, the 20th century romantic music of U.S. black origin, is characterised by the use of improvisation, like Indian classical music.

But its association with nightlife, addiction to drugs and drinks and a disregard for the conservative style of life has made it unacceptable to a people wedded to tradition.

At the first Annual Nightlife Awards here last week, Iyer was named among the winners of the award in the "Unique Jazz Performance" category capping 10 years of struggle and persistence.

He is the son of Indian immigrant professionals who were initially uncomfortable with Iyer embarking on so adventurous a career.

Born and raised in upstate New York, he started his violin lessons at the age of three. Soon he was drawn to his sister's piano, where he began picking up melodies at age six.

Entirely self-taught as a pianist and composer, he was lured into jazz in his teens, performing original music with his own groups throughout college.

His CD "Memorophilia", recorded when he was 23, was listed by Cadence magazine editor Bob Rusch among the 10 best of 1996. He moved to the world jazz and nightlife capital, New York City, after his masters.

The years of hardship in New York were softened by critical acclaim: The New Yorker described his playing as "captivating...an extravagantly gifted new jazz pianist and a quick-witted composer."

"I shared the award with four other pianists, Jason Moran, Matthew Shipp, Ethan Iverson, Fred Hersch, who all gave solo concerts in a series at the Jazz Standard last September for the Verizon Music Festival," Iyer said.

"The jazz honours were quite serious: two of the greatest living artists Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, both brilliant, challenging innovators now in their 70s received the highest awards. The younger awardees were pretty progressive," he added.

"It was a great honour to be included, and especially a wonderful experience to perform to a full house at Town Hall, one of New York's most historic venues and the site of some of the greatest performances of the 20th century.

"It is possible that I was the first South Asian American ever to have had this experience," he admitted.