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Ornette Coleman Wins 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music

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"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.

But then, jazz and the Pulitzer have had a very long and rocky relationship. Back in 1965, y'see, the three-member Pulitzer jury voted unanimously to recommend that the Prize Board waive the "work done in the last year" requirement and give the award to Duke Ellington for his lifetime achievement. It was a major coup — or at least, it would have been. The jury only gets to recommend a winner to the Board; the Board has final say over who, if anyone, gets the award. And they weren't happy with the Duke. Rather than recognize Ellington for what he was — the greatest composer in American music— the Board chose not to give an award at all in 1965. Two of the three jurors resigned in protest. Aaron Copeland, the guy who classical snobs consider the Father of the American musical canon*, said in dismay, "He's deserved it for so long!" It should say something that the very musical establishment in favor of which Ellington was passed over, jumped to his defense.

As for Ellington, he feigned disinterest ("Fate is being kind to me; fate doesn't want me to get too famous too young," the 66-year-old bandleader remarked). But critic Nat Hentoff knew Duke behind the scenes and says he wasn't quite so magnanimous. "He was angrier than I've ever seen him before," Hentoff says of Ellington when he learned that he wouldn't get the prize. "he said, 'I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind.'"

He was right, too. Even though most Americans prefer pop styles to classical ones, we still tend to believe that the idea of "music to be taken seriously" is synonymous with music of the European classical tradition. Most of us even labor under the falsehood that American pop music is based on the European tradition, which is as incorrect an impression as one could hope to have. American music is not rooted in Europe, or Africa, or anywhere else – it is its own animal, a tradition that could not have originated anywhere else.

Some people in the ivory tower have always understood the narrow, inbred scope of the award. Gunther Schuller, a classical composer who was also a jazz composer/performer and critic, has long agitated for jazz's recognition, even as he was winning the '94 prize. The 2001 recipient, John Corigliano (Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra), opined that "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." A breath of fresh air! Someone actually suggesting that the Pulitzer Prize jury (which, as some critics have pointed out, is supposed to rotate, but all too frequently bounces around between the same few people) to broaden its horizons.

But fantastic though his insights were, Corigliano was a member of the old guard; it took a younger composer, one born after World War II—into a world where high and low culture weren't quite so segregated—to turn the tide. When composer John Adams won in 2003 (On the Transmigration of Souls), he told the New York Times that he had little interest in the award at all: "Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has lost much of the prestige it carries in other fields like literature and journalism." Why? Because the list of past winners doesn't contain "most of America's greatest musical minds…especially, the great jazz composers." These creative spirits, he wrote, had been passed over year after year, "often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes."

That did it. The next year's jury announced that they'd found his comments "very strong medicine," and the board announced that they were making a new effort to broaden the category to include musical soundtracks, film scores, and other genres. Some former winners were furious. The move sparked Lewis Spratlan's above-quoted screed of (self-) righteous indignation, and similarly pigheaded remarks from other Pulitzer laureates. John Harbison — a previous winner, as well as one of those elite few who was always popping up on the jury — called it "a horrible development. If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels." (That's really the way these people think: if you're not writing symphonies and operas, you're writing throwaway trash.)

My favorite reaction, which was also a reaction to jerk-offs like Spratlan and Harbison, came from classical composer/critic Greg Sandow.

what's really going on here — if you ask me — is a last-ditch defense of the
obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be art. Or, maybe,
something even worse. Since just about everybody knows by now that this old idea is totally and completely wrong, I wonder if [these academy composers] aren't (whether they know it or not) simply trying to protect their turf, trying to preserve some distinction, some chance at prestige and momentary fame, that might elude them if the Pulitzer prize were given simply for artistic merit.

And Sandow saved a special bit of response just for John Harbison's "airport novels" comparison: "If he'd taken half the risk he takes here — been willing to leap this far out on a limb to make an unmistakable statement — in his Great Gatsby opera, it would have been 10 times a better piece."

And yet, except the token '97 award for Marsalis (which was cheating anyway, since Blood on the Fields premiered in 1994 — it was just released on CD in 1996), the Pulitzer Prize Board continued to give its music award to classical pieces even after its great and terrible rules-change. In fairness, it may be that those works deserved the award. And in further fairness, I don't believe that Coleman's was the best jazz recording of last year (that was Andrew Hill's Time Lines), let alone of the new century so far (Dave Holland's 2003 Extended Play: Live at Birdland).

All the same, I rejoice at his winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music. Nobody, since Ellington died in 1974, has so deserved the recognition for so long a time. And if critic Gary Giddins is correct in saying that it's the whole ouevre, not the individual work, that counts in American music (and I'm not sure he is, but bear with me), let Coleman's award stand for a half-century of redefining the word "music." In that sense he can stand with the "special citation" lifetime achievement awards that Pulitzer gave posthumously to Ellington, Joplin, and Gershwin…the only difference being that Coleman was still alive to receive the accolades he has earned.

Plus, Sound Gallery really was an incredible record, likely better and more important than any symphony or opera premiered last year.

*Because classical snobs have never heard of Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, or W.C. Handy.

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About Michael J. West

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    great reporting, mjw. it makes me want to spend the night on the keyboard, probably will once the Sbares finish off the Islanders. you should be writing more.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    I caught the news of this last Monday, didn’t even know prior to this that there is a Pulitzer for music. Ornette very much deserved the recognition.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Thanks, El Bicho. You, too, Pico. I’ll actually be writing again tomorrow, but on a far less pleasant note: if you guys weren’t aware, Andrew Hill passed away this morning…

  • http://bacalar.blogspot.com Howard Dratch

    I never thought about a Pulitzer for music before either. But if there was a jazz musician to win it, as you point out, Ornette Coleman was the man to do it. There is fine music, musicianship and then there is someone like Coleman who steps beyond all of that into new territory.