Sour Note

When will the Pulitzer Prize in music get it right?

Thelonious Monk 

It’s great news that Thelonious Monk won a Pulitzer Prize. Too bad he’s been dead for 24 years. The Pulitzer board, in its press statement Monday, awarded Monk a “posthumous special citation” for “a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz.”


So, when are they going to start giving Pulitzers to jazz musicians—or serious pop musicians or musical-theater composers—who are still around to enjoy the applause and spend the prize money?

Jack Shafer has complained of the back-scratching politics that tarnishes the Pulitzers for news, but those awards are emblems of wisdom and justice compared with the prizes for music. When John Adams, one of the most imaginative and popular classical composers alive, received a Pulitzer in 2003 for his symphonic 9/11 memorial, On the Transmigration of Souls, he practically brushed its aside. “Among musicians that I know,” he told the New York Times, “the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism.” Adams rightly felt that the greatest musical minds had been passed over “often in favor of academy composers” by academy jurors.

The Pulitzers in the other “arts” categories are usually given to books and plays that reflect, or have an impact on, the broader culture. At least since the 1960s, few of the Pulitzer winners for music have so much as been heard by even devoted concertgoers.

Twice in the past decade, the Pulitzer board has promised to sweep away its cloistered cobwebs. In 1996, after years of internal debate, it announced a change in the criteria for the music prize, “so as to attract the best of a wider range of American music.” The following year, the Pulitzer for music went to Wynton Marsalis’ jazz opera, Blood on the Fields—a ponderously boring work (when I saw it that year at Lincoln Center, Marsalis’ home turf, one-third of the audience left at intermission, and it wasn’t because the music was difficult). But at least things seemed to be loosening up. In 1998, the panel gave a “special citation” to George Gershwin and, in ‘99, to Duke Ellington, in both cases on the occasion of their centennials—as if to make amends for bypassing them in their prime. (The classic case of the Pulitzer’s stuffiness: In 1965, the jury voted to give the music prize to Ellington; the board vetoed the ruling and gave no award that year. Ellington classily responded, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” He was 67 at the time.)

But the expansive trend stopped there. Some of the subsequent winners were a bit more mainstream—Aaron Jay Kernis in 1998, John Corigliano in 2001, Adams in ‘03—but the classical barrier was firmly re-erected.

In June 2004, the forces for change tried again: “After more than a year of studying the Prize … the Pulitzer Prize Board declares its strong desire to consider and honor the full range of distinguished American musical compositions—from the contemporary classical symphony to jazz, opera, choral, musical theater, movie scores, and other forms of musical excellence.”

Accordingly, they changed the wording of the prize itself. Before, it read:

For a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance in the United States during the year.

Now it would read:

For a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year.

Two things were new in this wording—one laudable, one appalling. First, it gave the public release of a recording the same status as a public performance, a move that at least theoretically broadened the range of candidates. But second, the phrase “distinguished musical composition” was no longer followed by the phrase “of significant dimension.”

The board explained that the revised definition “adopts a broad view of serious music” and that the now-deleted words—”of significant dimension”—had “limited the evaluations by jurors” in the past. But in fact, whether intentionally or not, the revision sent a signal to the stuffed shirts that they were right to regard those other kinds of American music—”jazz, opera, choral, musical theater, movie scores”—as not significant. And why would—why should—they give the Pulitzer to a work lacking “significant dimension”?

Nobody but classical composers—and relatively unknown ones, at that (Steven Stucky and Yehudi Wyner)—has won the Pulitzer for music in the two years since the “change.” The memory of Monk was granted a “special citation” (my guess is as a response to last year’s wildly popular CD of the long-lost ‘57 concert at Carnegie Hall), but that was the first time even a dead jazzman won anything since Ellington’s deferred plaudit of seven years ago.

So, if the Pulitzer people are serious about their twice-declared broad-mindedness, I have two proposals.

First, next year, issue “special citations” to every dead jazz composer that they’re sorry never won a Pulitzer—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Count Basie, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Bud Powell, to name a few—and be done with it. Throw in the Tin Pan Alley giants that should join Gershwin: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart.

Second, start making good on your promises of 1996 and 2004: Broaden your range of serious, enduring music. Where’s the Pulitzer for Ornette Coleman, whose concept of “harmolodics”—the equal positioning of harmony, melody, and rhythm—revolutionized jazz and whose music remains thrilling today? What about George Russell, also still active, whose “Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization” led to Miles Davis’ “modal” music and liberated jazz from the harmonic dead-end of the ‘40s and ‘50s? Or, to skip genres, what living composer is more deserving than Stephen Sondheim, whose meldings of entrancing melody and sophisticated harmony have fluttered and riveted more hearts and minds than any 12-tone academic could dream of?

When the Pulitzer board issued its new definition, the classical composer and onetime Pulitzer finalist Stephen Hartke bemoaned the downgrading of “art music.” I’m not saying classical music should be displaced. Not at all. But if Ornette Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, and—let’s get down to basics—Bob Dylan aren’t also art music, I don’t know what is.