The Academy's Pulitzer

Why Jazz and Pop Don't Make the Cut

On April 9, the Times ran a surprising story by Anne Midgette, "Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers," in which John Adams, who had received the award for On the Transmigration of Souls, expressed astonishment at winning, and ambivalence bordering on contempt. The prize, he said, has "lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields," because "most of the country's greatest musical minds" are ignored, "often in favor of academy composers." He singled out the Pulitzer's neglect of mavericks, composer-performers, and "especially" the "great jazz composers." His point was not surprising; that a recipient made it was. He had said aloud what countless American composers grumble privately every year, most of them shy of going public and courting accusations of sour grapes.

In 1967, when Edward Albee won a makeup Pulitzer for A Delicate Balance, he said that friends urged him to refuse it; in 1963, the drama jury had chosen to present no award rather than acknowledge Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In effect, Albee argued that his dissent would have more meaning as a winner. As he went on to win more Pulitzers, if he contested them at all, he kept it quiet. Adams took a nervy stand, opening himself to allegations of biting the hand that massaged him. Not many winners have publicly questioned the process since Sinclair Lewis spurned the prize in 1926 (as well he should, Arrowsmith having beaten The Great Gatsby, though that wasn't his reason). And Adams loosened other lips. John Corigliano, the 2001 winner, told Midgette, "The Pulitzer was originally intended to be for a work that is going to last, to mean something to the world. It changed into another kind of award completely: by composers for composers"—mired, he added, in a pool of rotating jurors.

The Pulitzer Prizes, launched with a fourth of Joseph Pulitzer's $2 million bequest to create the Columbia University School of Journalism, began presenting laurels in journalism and literature in 1917. The music prize was instituted in 1943, the year of Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige; the prize, however, went to William Schuman's A Free Song, a respectable choice by an important composer who was already a magnet for prizes. In the jazz world, the Pulitzer is shrugged off as just another establishment club (from the Grammys to the Kennedy Center Honors) that routinely ignores composers working in the idiom that most consistently and articulately proclaims "America" to the rest of the world. Yet many civilians are amazed to learn that in its 60 years, the Pulitzer has never acknowledged a single figure in popular music and only once gave the nod to a jazz work—Wynton Marsalis's Blood on the Fields, in 1997. Gunther Schuller and Mel Powell have also won, but for pieces entirely unconnected to their jazz work.

John Adams takes a stand.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
John Adams takes a stand.

The most celebrated pas de deux between the Pulitzers and jazz occurred in 1965, when the jury unanimously voted to override the standard rule of honoring a single work premiered the previous year, in order to hail Duke Ellington for his lifetime achievement. The jury, to its dismay, was overruled by the advisory board, which chose to present no award that year. A Pulitzer spokesman later argued that the single-work rule could not be broken; but if they had wanted to make things right at the time, they could have given it to Ellington the next year for the premiere of his masterpiece, Far East Suite—or for several subsequent suites debuted before his death in 1974.

Yet had the advisory board acknowledged any of those works, it would have done little more than apply a Band-Aid to a triple bypass. The real problem went to the heart of Pulitzer politics: It was the rule itself. The jury that desired to honor Ellington understood something about indigenous American music—it is different; it plays a different game. The board would look foolish giving it to one new song by Bob Dylan or one typical concert by Sonny Rollins. The congregate achievement is almost always what counts. Lester Young was a great composer not because of his riff tunes, but because he created a new and inspired canvas in American music; as instantly recognizable as an Aaron Copland ballet, Young's canvas was as amorphous as Leaves of Grass, his every improvisation another leaf, some greener than others, all part of one visionary achievement. It is easy to retrospectively find jazz compositions that ought to have been recognized within the constraints of the Pulitzer rulebook, but to say that A Love Supreme is eligible, and not the composer's lifework, is to force jazz to conform to the very 19th-century Eurocentric model it supplanted. Similarly, Irving Berlin or Woody Guthrie's songbooks are not only more popular than Pulitzer compositions, they also come far closer to answering Corigliano's call for "work that is going to last, to mean something to the world."

The Pulitzer is not averse to Band-Aids. It has a separate category called Special Awards and Citations, which has, in 73 years of occasional prize-giving, acknowledged three pop or jazz figures: Scott Joplin in 1976 (59 years after his death), George Gershwin in 1998 (61 years after his death), and Duke Ellington in 1999 (25 years after his death). The Ellington presentation was made "in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture." In short, it was a lifetime achievement award. And that's the right idea. The trick is to present the award while the recipient is breathing, and in the Music category proper, not in a remedial "duh" division. Ironically, on the one occasion when the board approved a jazz award, the jury played a shell game with its chief edict, recognizing a 1997 "premiere" at Yale University, although the work had been recorded in 1995.

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