Ravi Shankar plays at a party in his honor in New York City, 1956.
Paul Schutzer—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
By Ben Cosgrove
December 12, 2012

A towering cultural figure in his native India and one of the very first (and still one of the very few) Indian musicians to win a wide audience in the West, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar died on Tuesday, Dec. 11, in southern California. He was 92. An incalculable influence on musicians ranging from rock and rollers like the Beatles to jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Shankar introduced rhythms and tones to fans all over the world who had never heard — or heard of — Indian ragas. He collaborated with George Harrison, Philip Glass, John Coltrane and other musical giants. He played at Woodstock. He was, unquestionably, one of the signature musical artists of the past century.

[MORE: Read Krista Mahr’s appreciation of Ravi Shankar on TIME.com.]

In 1957, LIFE magazine published a couple of pictures of Shankar playing in a “sitar jam session” with jazz greats like Gillespie and pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith in New York City, at a 1956 party in his honor thrown by jazz historian Marshall Stearns. The photos that ran in LIFE, made by a young Paul Schutzer on his first assignment as a staff photogtapher, capture the essence of Shankar, Gillespie and the others jamming that night: intense, joyful, fearless craftsmen, all of them fluent in the universal language of music. The picture above, meanwhile — a photo that has never been published before — shows Shankar as millions around the globe would come to see him through the years: seated, sitar in hand, improvising on ancient themes, making them new, a creative force utterly alive to the moment.

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