Indian American Jazz Artists Create Their Own Sound

February 2012
Sunburst Logo, Smithsonian Institution

I once saw Ravi Coltrane play in a small club in New York City, about 15 years ago. I knew he was John Coltrane’s son and I thought it interesting that he had an Indian first name. I learned soon after that he was named after Ravi Shankar. John Coltrane had a deep respect for Shankar, and while they met various times, Coltrane passed away before he could take lessons from Shankar. Still, Indian music found its way into John Coltrane’s albums, and this trend grew – American jazz musicians would learn and borrow from Indian classical music. It would have varying degrees of an exotic quality – respectful yet invoked partly because of the sound’s foreignness.

Today, the practice of American jazz musicians invoking Indian classical music continues. But, it is now South Asian Americans who are doing this, and to remarkable effect. Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Rez Abbasi, Sanjay Mishra, Asha Putli, Sachal Vasandani, and others who immigrated when they were younger or grew up in the United States have made a living as jazz musicians and singers. For these artists it is less an exploration into “the other” and more into the self. In the words of Mahanthappa, “Indian-American identity reigns supreme in my work.”
These musicians bring together various musical styles in subtle ways, such as by incorporating a particular Carnatic rhythm that would be hard to discern as overtly Indian to the novice ears. Yet, such blending of styles requires years of research and has earned significant praise. Looking at the websites of these musicians will reveal almost countless laudatory reviews.

Last week, the Embassy of India co-sponsored a week’s worth of South Asian American jazz artists at the Blues Alley. I had the pleasure of seeing Rez Abbasi play guitar in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto-saxophone quartet on Friday night. It was an electric performance. Each member sounded out in turn and in concert, and Mahanthappa played along a couple of electronic, computer-led jazz episodes as well. This is cutting-edge music, with references to an Indian past and to a high-tech future. The lines between real and recorded are blurred, as they are between East and West both musically and personally.


Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.