The Academy's Pulitzer

Why Jazz and Pop Don't Make the Cut

Adams, in listing a few non-winners for the Times, mentioned John Cage, Morton Feldman, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Thelonious Monk, and Laurie Anderson, as well as the general category of "great jazz composers." He would like to impose a more radical sensibility on a historically conservative institution. (Consider fiction: Laughing Boy beat The Sound and the Fury and A Farewell to Arms; Years of Grace beat As I Lay Dying, The Maltese Falcon, and Flowering Judas; Now in November beat Tender Is the Night and Appointment in Samarra; and the board could find no worthy fiction at all in the years For Whom the Bell Tolls, Native Son, The Hamlet, The Adventures of Augie March, V, Idiots First, Losing Battles, and Gravity's Rainbow were eligible.) But the issue as it regards jazz is no longer about radical or conservative views of culture; the influence, constancy, and genius of American music is denied nowhere—and none of it is represented in the Pulitzer rolls.

Does it matter? Of course it does. Owing to its long history and the press's psychic investment in the journalistic (and primary) wing of its prize-giving, the Pulitzer has a visibility and cachet beyond other cultural awards. The Times doesn't phone recipients of National Book Awards or American Music Center Letters of Distinction for human-interest reports on how they felt when they heard their names called. The Pulitzer, like it or not, is America's big award, a kind of sanctioning. Only rank stubbornness can rationalize prolonging a slight that should have been rectified decades ago.

A couple of weeks after the Pulitzers were handed out, the AMC awarded its Letters of Distinction to George Crumb, the Voice's Kyle Gann (a distinguished composer as well as a critic), Steve Reich, Wayne Shorter, and the late music publisher Ronald Freed. Shorter is the ringer in this group, but not among previous AMC recipients, who include—in addition to most of Adams's mavericks and many who've won Pulitzers—Randy Weston, Max Roach, Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie (posthumously), Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman. All but Gillespie and most of the MJQ are living, and it's hard to imagine anyone questioning the appropriateness of awarding any of them Pulitzers. There are others deserving of consideration, including Rollins, Dylan, Benny Carter, George Russell, B.B. King, Lee Konitz, Henry Threadgill, Abbey Lincoln, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Andrew Hill, Jim Hall, Chuck Berry, Roy Haynes, Pete Seeger, James Brown, and David Murray.

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

Should the Pulitzer board decide to rejigger its rule book or expand its grasp, it would have to overcome the embarrassment of an awfully interesting mea culpa, something on the order of "The Pulitzer Prize in Music has decided to accept the reality of American music and will no longer dismiss out of hand all composers who swing or sanction improvisation." But the real difficulty would be administrative. The divides among jazz and pop and the academy remain so vast that in selecting its jurors in any given year, the committee will have virtually decided which area to favor; word would have to be leaked that the barriers have come down, because few non-academics submit nominations. Put a couple of jazz people on the jury and the dice are loaded for jazz. Still, better to switch loaded dice from one year to the next than to use—as is now the case—the same pair every year.

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