Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Coltrane, Vijay Iyer & African American literature

At the beginning of each class session for the African American literature courses I teach, I usually play jazz tunes for the students. A little mood music, something to set the atmosphere. In the past, I've played Miles, Monk, Mary Lou Williams, the Bad Plus, Duke, and of course my main guy Trane. This semester, I'm going to concentrate on two musicians (and their groups), Coltrane and the pianist Vjay Iyer.

So far, so good. Last week, I started with a few pieces by Trane, and this week, we've been on Iyer. Students who've had me before were familiar with the works by Trane, but when they heard the Iyer pieces, they knew I had changed things up.

"Who are we listening to?" one of the students asked. 

"Oh, right now? That's Vjay Iyer," I replied.

In another class, I played a different Iyer song and asked one of the young sisters if she knew what we were listening to.

"That's that Michael Jackson," she said.

"Mike got a lot of music. Which one?" I asked.

"Human Nature," she replied.

Iyer serves as a good point of departure in my poetry and folklore course since we spend so much time talking about signifying. I was telling the folks on Monday that we could think of Iyer's covers of Jackson, M.I.A.'s "Galang," and Ronnie Foster's "Mystic Brew" as a kind of signifying. We'll talk too about how Trane signifies on the old popular tune "My Favorite Things."

Since so many of my students arrive with knowledge and interests in rap, R&B, and gospel, I'm always pleased to push them a little outside of their comfort zones by exposing them to a few jazz artists. 
A Notebook on Vijay Iyer

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