A Pulitzer Prize, even outside of its traditional journalism purview, is a weighty honor indeed, conferring incalculable credibility, though, at $10,000, it doesn’t have much pecuniary punch. The Pulitzers are not federal policy, of course, but with respect to the music prizes they can be considered a form of American institutional cultural policy (in this case administered by Columbia University).
Of particular note from an improvocracy perspective, Wadada Leo Smith’s monumental Ten Freedom Summers was nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, but lost out, somewhat ironically, to a 30-year-old White woman, Caroline Shaw, who, according to The New York Times, did not consider herself a composer, but simply a musician. I haven’t heard Partita for Eight Voices, and I’m sure it’s terrific, but it’s not Ten Freedom Summers. At any rate, the Pulitzer Prize in Music goes back to 1943, but jazz-based Pulitzers are few and far between. There was a brouhaha in 1965 when the Pulitzer jury wanted to honor Duke Ellington, then 67, but the board rejected the notion, allowing Ellington to add to his collection of quotable witticisms with, “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” In 1999, the Pulitzer committee awarded Ellington, who died in 1974, a special citation, commemorating the centennial of his birth. These posthumous jazz citations, in contrast to Jazz Masters, which awards living artists only, are a periodic Pulitzer peculiarity. Scott Joplin was so honored way back in 1976; George Gershwin in 1998; Thelonious Monk in 2006; and John Coltrane in 2007.
Gunther Schuller, who lives in both the classical and jazz worlds (and who is a Jazz Master), won in 1994 for a classical composition, “Reminiscences and Reflections,” but the first out-and-out jazz Pulitzer was awarded to Wynton Marsalis (also a Jazz Master, along with his entire family), who is one-third of what is known in Ka-ching as the Axis of Reaction, for a three-hour oratorio, Blood on the Fields. Nat Hentoff, who reported Ellington’s fury in 1965, thereby immortalizing the “too young” quote, writing of “Blood on the Fields” in 2004, said, “With respect to Wynton—and I mean that because he keeps growing not only as a musician but also as an educator and composer—that composition does not measure up to Ellington, Mingus and Monk.”
Nevertheless, the Marsalis award signaled a revision in the Pulitzer music rules, allowing more leeway for jazz and the citing of recorded works in addition to compositions. This resulted not only in the aforementioned special citations, but, in 2007, Ornette Coleman won the music prize for “Sound Grammar“—not a composition, a record, which is the first live jazz recording to win the award, notes the Pulitzer site, which goes on to point out that the prize is for “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year,” though Sound Grammar was recorded in Germany. Whatever. While singling out this particular quartet record for a Pulitzer may seem a bit bizarre in the context of Pulitzer music history, at least Coleman was alive to receive it.
Between Coleman’s win and Leo Smith’s nomination, nothing happened on the jazz front but for Don Byron’s “Seven Etudes for Solo Piano,” a finalist in 2009. Byron, who is best known as a reed player, particularly a clarinetist, wears a variety of musical hats spanning everything from the avant-garde to the traditional. His Pulitzer-nominated work would not be categorized as jazz, of course, but the composer notes, “At this point in musical history, post-Stravinsky/Schoenberg, playing complicated rhythms correctly enough to create a groove may be the new frontier for the modern classical player.” Not only was Byron a Pulitzer finalist in 2009, he created quite a groove that year, also winning a Rome Prize for music composition.