"The Pulitzer is one of the very few prizes that award artistic distinction in front-edge, risk-taking music. To dilute this objective by inviting the likes of musicals and movie scores, no matter how excellent, is to undermine the distinctiveness and capability for artistic advancement."
-Composer Lewis Spratlan (2000 Pulitzer Prize in Music winner for opera Life is a Dream), on the Pulitzer's 2004 decision that "the prize should not be reserved essentially for music that comes out of the European classical tradition."
Of course! We wouldn't want anyone thinking that music outside the "classical" academy could have distinctiveness and capability for artistic advancement, would we, asshole?
It's prejudices like Spratlan's, extremely narrow-minded but all too common in the ivory-tower world of "serious" music, that made it still shocking this week—three years after the Board decided to broaden its musical range—when Ornette Coleman won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music for last year's wonderful Sound Grammar album. Of course, it also made his win a delight.
It's not even widely known that there is a Pulitzer Prize in music. We all think of it as something that writers win: Lois Lane was always talking about getting one, and Eugene O'Neill was always actually getting one. In fact, there are 21 categories of Pulitzers; 20 of them are for writers, and one, the aptly named Pulitzer Prize for Music, is for composers.
The Pulitzer for Music is "For a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year." No specific genre or tradition, you'll notice, is mentioned in that definition. And yet somehow, in the 65 years they've given a prize, 63 of them have gone to music in the European classical tradition. Even after the rule change in 2004, the prizes for that year, the following, and 2006 all went to academy composers. For those of you who aren't so good at subtraction, my dearly beloved Coleman is the second-ever nonclassical winner; he's also the second-ever jazz winner (the first being Wynton Marsalis' flaccid and interminable Blood on the Fields in 1997), and the first-ever jazz winner who deserved it.
The truth is, he should have won the Pulitzer in 1960 for his work the previous year. Recordings were not eligible for the prize then (although if they had been, The Shape of Jazz to Come would have been a more than worthy recipient)—music had to have been premiered in concert in the past 12 months to be considered — but that's just as well, because Coleman's real breakthrough in 1959 was his debut at the Five Spot club in New York City. Its impact was, in all seriousness, on the order of the riots at Stravinsky's premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913; while many of Coleman's contemporaries and elder statesmen denounced him as blasphemous, almost all of them were scrambling a few years later to incorporate his ideas into their own music. Nearly 50 years later, the entire jazz world (and a Hell of a lot of the pop world) is struggling to catch up with his music. If that doesn't merit Coleman's Five Spot set the highest of accords, what possibly could? Instead, Elliott Carter's String Quartet No. 2 — innovative, but nowhere near as radical and music-redefining as Coleman — got the nod. Not that Carter was unworthy, he just wasn't as worthy.