Vijay Iyer and the Imagination and Improvisation of Jazz

Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer

Growing up as a double bassist, jazz was a genre of music that intrigued me. I would gaze in amazement and wonder at how these musicians were able to improvise at live shows and create these incredible pieces of art. Most of the time, these musicians did not even have sheet music in front of them. I had many questions and wanted to understand the meanings behind jazz music, how these musicians learned to improvise, the unspoken truth behind jazz and so much more. I was lucky enough to score an interview with the modern-day legend, Vijay Iyer. He is a composer, pianist, producer and bandleader who has released over twenty albums. He also joined the Harvard faculty as a tenured professor in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies.

We started our conversation around the intersections between mathematics, sciences and music. As Iyer has a wide variety of educational experiences, from a bachelor’s in mathematics and physics from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Technology and the Arts from UC Berkeley, I wanted to get his thoughts on the correlation between science and music. Iyer further elaborated on his thoughts. 

Back in my physics days I witnessed research up close. I tried to solve problems, create questions and pursue my own answers to those questions. I tapped into intuition, which is an elusive construct. It seems to encompass anything that’s not entirely conscious, and for that reason, maybe not entirely logical.

He dove deeper into aesthetics in the realm of problem-solving when looking at mathematical equations.

I learned that for a solution to matter, it should be not just be correct, but elegant. An equation like E = mc squared could have been something much more intricate, complicated or ugly. Part of what makes that equation powerful is its simplicity.

Iyer concluded this topic by talking about the research process and scientific method not being very different from making art — the idea of intuition being at the core of it and that actually, a lot of the best thinking happens when individuals are asleep. Iyer ultimately decided to pursue music over theoretical physics as he found more of a collective thrill and joy in making music. 

We continued our conversation by jumping to the topic of improvisation and how players manage not to lose themselves within the music. It often feels like there is a lot of trust involved among the musicians and everyone is playing a daring game of chance.

We are all improvisers. You’re an improviser. Even this conversation is an improvisation. You’re born improvising; it’s how you learn to do almost everything. It’s everyone’s birthright to explore their environment, interact with it, make decisions and take action. That’s what improvisation is. That’s all it is. Whenever you’re not alone, you’re taking in information from other people you’re interacting with and you’re relating to them. And that isn’t anything except improvisation.

Iyer furthered his point by relating music to a game of basketball and the English language. They all have rules and regulations that keep the structure constrained.

When you watch the best basketball players, it looks like complete freedom, but what they’re doing is still very organized. When we play music together that features improvisation, we have some kind of parameters that help us move together. It might be a rhythmic cycle, or a bassline, or chord progression or some melodic ideas. Then we build inside of that structure.

Iyer helped me realize that everything we do is improvisation. In his words, “From eating dinner, having a conversation with someone, going on a date, this all falls under the umbrella of improvisation.” He furthers his point by saying, “It’s all being made as it happens. That’s how we do almost everything, right?” 

What I found most interesting during this conversation was Iyer’s thoughts on the devaluation of improvisation in the West. Iyer further elaborates his thoughts. 

You look at the history of copyright law, for example: A composition counts as intellectual property, but improvisation does not. So because of that, we have all grown up devaluating improvisation in the West. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Our conversation moved toward jazz being a misunderstood genre where people feel like they are missing something to truly appreciate it. I wanted to get to the bottom of how to entice more listeners to give jazz another try and attract them to the genre. Iyer provided his thoughts around jazz.

If you took the word ‘jazz’ away and then you just encountered artists making music on their own terms, you engage with it as it speaks to you more. Some of it will grab you and some of it won’t. It can just be about individual artists who speak to you and don’t, and that’s fine. If you just say, ‘I didn’t like this, so I guess I don’t like jazz’ — that’s a mistake.

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We continued our conversation with how Iyer has been described in the past. As Iyer has been described by the New York Times as a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway,” I wanted to learn about his process and mindset when creating new projects. Iyer describes his process in his own words. 

It involves the idea of transformation and trying to provoke change within myself. I have to put myself in contact with something other than myself. It’s not all going to come from the same place from fishing around on the piano with these same hands. It’s often more about trying to relate to something other than what I already know.

Iyer has performed in trios, sextets, duos, as well as in other groups. He has created compositions not only for orchestras but solo instruments as well. He plays best with a drummer in his instrumental combinations as he says, “I have a handle on how to feature that relationship, or that axis in an ensemble, between piano and drums.” He has worked with many creative individuals such as Indian classical musicians, vocalists from different countries, poets, rappers and more. Shahzad Ismaily is a notable bassist and electronics musician Iyer has played with. Iyer has also worked with notable singer Arooj Aftab, who has training in Qawwali music, which is a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing. Iyer speaks about what it is like working with some of his collaborators. 

When I play with Arooj and Shahzad, there’s no preparation or rehearsal or anything. We simply make music together, we walk this path together, and there are no questions. It’s just as it comes. That’s why I said, like, whom can I channel with? It’s really like, it’s just coming through us.

Iyer taught me: It’s not the instrumentation, it’s the people, and what we do with it. Just at the moment, and the balance of it is really special.

One of the most interesting projects Iyer was a part of was called “Thums Up” with Heems, Rafiq Bhatia, and Kassa Overall. The project initially started off as an experiment but turned out to be an incredible experience. Iyer continues to work with these artists and has built up a rapport with each of them throughout the years. Iyer and Heems initially linked over Twitter, which sparked into a working relationship for years to come. Iyer ended up working on a track called “Free Jazzmatazz” for Himanshu’s (Heems) group Das Racist. Iyer continued to talk about the early days of his career when he had residences in New York City at little joints like The Stone, where he was free to experiment with his music and bring together his most trusted friends to create different types of pieces. Iyer describes Heems as having an “artist’s soul and yearnings to be creative.”

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We moved on to the topic of what it feels like being South Asian in the space of jazz and how he feels grounded being in this genre. 

Being in a musical form that was created by Black people, I take that side seriously. But I have learned not to take the music business too seriously, because the more serious you take it, the more damage it does to you.

Iyer provided insight into his experiences and talks about the relationship between jazz and race. 

This is Black music, but it is an almost completely white-run business. Who gets signed, who gets written about, who gets gigs — that’s mostly controlled by white men. That’s been the dynamic for a hundred years.

In terms of acceptance in the field, Iyer has been embraced by music makers of African descent as well as white critics and has been fortunate to build a rapport with many artists. He feels that he is accepted because he is just trying to be genuine, generous, and is always trying to learn from individuals regardless of age. The journey did not come easy to Iyer as the business side is very abusive. It has done damage to him emotionally but he has learned to live with it through the relationships he has cultivated with other artists. Iyer further elaborates on this point. 

The people who reduce you are the people who do not know how to listen and be authentically present for you so you don’t have to live by them.

Iyer’s first project called Memorophilia came out in 1995, and he cherished the experience. He wasn’t sure if his first project would be his last, so he put everything he had into it. He looked at it as if it would be his only statement to the world and put a lot of different things in it, trying to cover a lot of ground. Throughout his journey, he matured as a composer and artist and focused on specifics for each project. 

We ended the interview by talking about Iyer being approached to be a part of the music faculty at Harvard with tenure. Iyer decided to check it out, but he did not feel the need to prove anything to anyone by getting an academic job, as he was happy being a freelance artist. Iyer looked at Harvard as a corporation with very different priorities than his own, and he questioned where he would fit into it and how it would serve him as an artist. He feels that he has been able to make some new changes there and be a part of something new and alter the landscape. 

I truly enjoyed my conversations with Vijay Iyer and loved learning about his musical journey. Iyer started his musical journey at the age of 3, learning violin and continued until he was a sophomore in college. He has a wide variety of musical influences from Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Abida Parveen and so many more. I was able to relate to his musical journey as I also started mine as a part of a symphony orchestra. We both agreed that some of our best memories involved being stuck in cramped rooms that were way beyond capacity just for the chance to rock out. Iyer never knows if he has created something innovative before he has created it. He keeps challenging himself to create projects he has not heard of before.

By Arun S.

Arun fell in love with music at a young age by way of his middle school music teacher Mr. D. … Read more ›

Reflection Comes From Within, not From Others

“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.

I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.

We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!

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Confessions to a Moonless Sky

Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.

If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.

But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.

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By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›

Pyar is Pyar: A Celebration of Queer Brown Love

An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.

The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.

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Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.


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Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.

“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”

“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.

Jain and Mehta are leading a legal effort to bring marriage equality to India, taking them to the country’s Supreme Court. The couple was denied recognition of their marriage in 2020, despite the country’s Foreign Marriage Act that allows the marriage of Indian citizens abroad to be recognized.

“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”

“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”

“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.

Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.

Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.

Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.

“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”

Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need. 

[Read Related: Allies to Advocates: Desi Rainbow Parents and Allies Empower Transformation]

“Your coming out in support of us is the pivotal shift that we need to change attitudes in our community,” she said.

Among the South Asian queer leaders and allies in attendance were actors Kal Penn and Sarita Choudhury, activist Alok Vaid-Menon, and the legendary DJ Rekha.

To learn more about Desi Rainbow, visit their website

Photo Courtesy of Lara Tedesco-Barker

By Stephen Jiwanmall

Born in Philadelphia, Stephen has family roots in India and Pakistan. He lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his husband and … Read more ›

In Conversation with Karan Singh: CEO of the Sunburn Music Festival

Karan Singh Sunburn
Karan Singh Sunburn

From receiving his MBA from Harvard business school to being the CEO of Asia’s largest music festival brand Sunburn, Karan Singh combined his interests to push his passion for music! Singh received his bachelor’s degree in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked as an investment banker for three years at Ambit Corporate Finance before working at Sunburn which is a part of his family’s business. Sunburn started providing the music festival experience starting in the year 2007. The first festival was in Candolim, Goa. The music festival brand has put on over 5,000 events over the past 15 years. In 2022 The Sunburn Festival will be in it’s 16th year. Continue reading to learn more about Karan Singh’s journey with the Sunburn music festival!

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What does the Sunburn brand offer and what made you have the festival in Goa as opposed to other parts of India?

We believe that Sunburn offers a really unique experience and is a melting pot of diverse people & cultures from not only across India but around the world. Goa is the ideal setting for this as there is something magical about Goa in the winter-time and truly enables us to tap into that global audience.

Safety at live events has always been a concern among concert goers. Considering recent, events more individuals have asked brands and artists to do more to ensure audience safety. What are you doing to ensure safety for live concerts?

Safety is a huge priority for us. We work with the best-in-class security agencies as well as closely with the police and requisite authorities. For anyone in the crowd a Sunburn safety officer will always be close by and easily visible. We also run an awareness drive on both social media and on ground.

What was the first Sunburn Festival like and what did you learn from this experience?

The first ever Sunburn Festival was in December 2007, and I had actually attended it as a fan, not part of the crew. However, it was absolutely eye-opening as the first proper music festival on Indian shores and opened up our minds to a world of possibilities.

As Sunburn houses so many electronic dance musicians who have been your favorites throughout the years?

It is difficult to pick from the list however the favorites for Sunburn, in no order and because of the amount of love they have shown Indian audiences, are Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren.

Do you plan to expand the festival to add other genres into the mix as well as more activities?

We have already expanded into different formats like Arena, Campus, Club, Reload and things like merchandize & academy. In terms of genres, we have been dabbling with genres like rap, hip-hop and pop, however our focus remains on electronic dance music.

What can someone expect from the festival as first-time goers?

Apart from a state-of-the-art production & line-up, one can expect a special experience, meeting interesting people from all over the world, and embarking on a creative journey of the theme for the year.

How does the festival help local musicians from Goa as well as the surrounding areas in India?

This year we had set up for the first time a special stage and village in the festival only for Goa which gave a platform to local Goan artists. But beyond that a huge focus for us has always been to showcase domestic home-grown talent and indeed 60-70% of the line-up each year is locally sourced.

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A post shared by Martin Garrix (@martingarrix)

What was the experience like this year in 2022 and how is it different from previous years?

The biggest difference was that this was the first time the festival was back to its full scale since the pandemic hit after 3 long years. It was a fantastic release for everyone there. Our theme was “the future is now” and this was reflected across the festival experience and particularly in the main stage design – termed “Cyberpunk City” which received rave reviews from all.

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What was it like having the legends Black Coffee and Afrojack this year as well as the DJ duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike?

Afrojack and DVLM are both Sunburn & India veterans, it was amazing having them back crushing the main stage after very long. Black Coffee for us was something very new and exciting, to have a special artist and a unique sound like that close the main stage on day 2. However it was very well-received and took our experience to the next level.

As you have had the artist Avicii back in December 2011 how do you feel he revolutionized Electronic Dance Music?

Avicii is one of my all-time favorite artists and his show in December 2011 was actually my first one working on Sunburn so will always be extra special. There is no doubt that he revolutionized EDM by taking massive risks and introducing an entirely new sound which a lot of others then followed, but no one as well as he did.

How does it feel to be in charge of one of Asia’s biggest Electronic Dance Music Festivals?

It feels great, we have a very young but ambitious and hard-working team and our primary focus is to continue delivering the best possible experiences for our fans, artists and partners. India is such a vibrant and exciting market that I cannot help but be pumped about what the future holds.

Do you feel Electronic Dance Music is a misunderstood genre?

More so in a country like India possibly yes, where people who are not exposed to these experiences sometimes have preconceived notions about EDM festivals and the like. Oftentimes those people are also in a decision-making capacity and can directly affect the industry. However, things are certainly improving as the industry overall gets bigger and gets more acceptance.

What does music mean to you, Karan Singh?

Music provides a sound-track to life, it is something which is always there!

How do you choose to react when you receive negative comments about the Sunburn Festival?

Well, you have to be able to differentiate between those which are just trolling and those which are constructive or fair criticism. The latter is very important as it helps us to look at ourselves and continually improve, we are still a long way from where we eventually want to be.

Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?

I hope it allows us at Sunburn to reach a wider audience of the desi community around the world and hopefully get some more people to fly down to Goa for Sunburn Festival 2023 which I can promise you all will be the best one yet!

Artist Testimonials:

Dimitri Vegas Like Mike

We have had a long connection with India. The first time we played here was more than a decade ago. Going from clubs to being a regular feature at one of Asia’s biggest electronic music festivals which is now an institution in itself. It’s been an exciting evolution to see how Sunburn has grown over the years. The fans at Sunburn are some of the most insane and every show is a special one. We’ve always had an incredible experience at Sunburn.

DJ Snake

Honestly, the energy I feel when I am in India is one of the most amazing things. I would say the culture and energy is what keeps me coming back! India is like a second home to me, just like Sunburn. I feel so comfortable and welcomed here. I’m always excited about coming to India and playing at Sunburn, experiencing new cities, meeting more of the people, hearing more of the music, and seeing more of the country that has influenced me so much.


Sunburn has helped dance music artists world over to tour India and connect with their Indian fans and I’m always excited about performing at the festival.


I’ve a long history with the Sunburn team. They are a great team to work with and they also give the fans amazing experiences. As an artist, I want to be a part of providing fans with lifelong memories and so we all share the same vision.

Alan Walker

Sunburn is one of the pioneers of the dance music festival scene in India and has been instrumental in creating a truly world class platform that supports the dance music industry and all of its stakeholders. I’m always excited about touring India with Sunburn.

Photo Courtesy of DNH Media

By Arun S.

Arun fell in love with music at a young age by way of his middle school music teacher Mr. D. … Read more ›