Monday, April 30, 2007

Ornette Meets the Pulitzer

I'm posting this story from the Wall Street Journal, without comment, except to say this ... Ornette deserves whatever honors he gets.

Jazz Wins a Pulitzer
Did Ornette Coleman deserve his prize?
April 28, 2007; Page P14

NEW YORK -- This year's Pulitzer Prize for music went not to a classical work but to an album of improvised jazz, Ornette Coleman's "Sound Grammar." That's a first. Wynton Marsalis won a Pulitzer in 1997, but that was for "Blood on the Fields," a three-hour-long composition for three jazz singers and a big band. "Sound Grammar," by contrast, consists of eight unrelated tunes by Mr. Coleman recorded live by his quartet at a 2005 concert.

Should "Sound Grammar" have won? Was it even eligible? The Pulitzer is supposed to go to a "distinguished musical composition by an American in any of the larger forms including chamber, orchestral, choral, opera, song, dance, or other forms of musical theatre." Whatever its other virtues, "Sound Grammar" is clearly not a large-scale composition, nor does it break any new stylistic ground for the celebrated and influential avant-garde saxophonist. Mr. Coleman has been making records since 1958, any number of which were far more memorable than this one.

So what's going on here? Let's start with a little history. The Pulitzer Board embarrassed itself in 1965 when it overruled that year's jury, which voted to give Duke Ellington a special award for lifetime achievement. It would have been the first time a Pulitzer went to a jazz musician. Ellington clearly qualified for the honor, but the board thought otherwise. The Duke, as usual, had the last word. "Fate is being kind to me," he said. "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young."

What made the decision especially galling was that the Pulitzer Prize had -- and has -- a bad reputation among music professionals. Prior to 2004, Pulitzer juries consisted of four composers and a critic. Classical composers are famously cliquish, so the prizes were usually given out to members in good standing of classical music's old-boy network, often to pieces that soon vanished without a trace. (Ever heard of Quincy Porter's Two-Piano Concerto?) Some were worthy, others less so, but the award itself came to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.

More recently, the Pulitzer Board approved the granting of special posthumous awards to Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and -- yes -- Ellington. Mr. Marsalis's award was rightly seen as a deliberate attempt to widen the scope of the main prize by giving it to a jazz composer for the first time. But most jazz is improvised, not notated, meaning that few of the greatest jazz musicians would have qualified for a Pulitzer. So the board changed the rules, making recorded music eligible and increasing the number of noncomposers on the five-person jury from one to three. The result? Mr. Coleman won this year's prize, and the jury also gave a special award to John Coltrane. (Thelonious Monk received a similar honor in 2006.)

I believe devoutly in the beauty and significance of jazz, and I love Mr. Coleman's bold, innovative music. But by giving the Pulitzer Prize to a good-but-not-great album that doesn't even pretend to meet its eligibility requirements, the board has debased the value of the music prize still further. As for the special award, why single out Coltrane now, great as he was? Why not Charlie Parker -- or Louis Armstrong, for that matter? It's hard not to wonder whether the board is trying to atone for past blunders by playing an arbitrary game of catch-up.

I also wonder how many judges likely to be tapped for future Pulitzer juries will be equally competent to weigh the relative merits of jazz and pop albums and written-out classical compositions. In a perfect world, all musicians would be as familiar with Duke Ellington as they were with Aaron Copland -- and some of them are. In practice, though, it's comparatively uncommon for classical musicians to have extensive knowledge of jazz, or vice versa. Yehudi Wyner, the classical composer and Pulitzer laureate who chaired this year's jury, acknowledged this fact by recommending to the Pulitzer Board that separate prizes be given to classical and nonclassical music, which strikes me as a realistic response to an otherwise insoluble problem.

Needless to say, the fact that classical music was shut out of this year's Pulitzers has not gone unnoticed. Nor should it. The Pulitzer Prize for music, after all, is the only award for musical composition that receives any kind of mass-media attention in this country. Because it is reported in most American newspapers, it gives a boost to the careers of the classical composers who receive it, most of whom labor in semiobscurity. On the other hand, it will make no difference to Mr. Coleman, who long ago wrote himself into the history of American music and needs no prize to retrospectively certify his importance.

That's why I have mixed feelings about Mr. Coleman's Pulitzer. Should the jury have stretched the rules well past the breaking point in order to give it to him? I wish I could say yes. He deserves it, and so does jazz. Yet I can't help but recall the footrace in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" that was judged by a dodo: "There was no 'One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked . . . At last the Dodo said, 'EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.'" That's no way to win an award -- even one that you richly deserve.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every other Saturday and blogs about the arts at www.terryteachout.com1. Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com2.

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