The list of the composers awarded Pulitzers for music in the 1960s is interesting: Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Robert Ward, Samuel Barber, Leslie Bassett, Leon Kirchner, George Crumb and Karel Husa. I would venture that Carter and Barber would be familiar to many. Maybe Piston and Crumb, too, for classical music buffs. But here in 2022, how reasonable does it sound that Ellington was denied membership in that pantheon at that time? One need not be especially committed to our time’s quest for “reckoning” to conclude that something wasn’t right.
Those awardees are all white, and it strikes me as unlikely that racism wasn’t part of why the Pulitzer board disregarded the jury’s decision in Ellington’s case. Something was blowing in the wind — as Theodore Strongin reported for The Times in 1965, two members of the three-person jury resigned “in protest against the Pulitzer advisory board’s ignoring of the jury’s unanimous recommendation.” Ellington was diplomatic, saying that “fate’s being kind to me” because it “doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.”
It seems to me that part of the problem, at least back then, is that in evaluations of musical merit, we’re often dealing in different languages. Take Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions.” Is it lesser art than, say, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”?
When Tchaikovsky’s second movement switches into its cold, creepingly gorgeous middle section — I recall working it out laboriously on the piano after I first heard it as a teen because I just wanted to touch it — we remember why we are alive. When Wonder’s “Living for the City” opens with its deep, slow, funky groove and progresses into, well, everything that happens in that song, we think: “What is this?” “Who did this?” Both works are brilliant. Attention must be paid to both, the same way that it should have been paid in the ’60s to Carter, Barber — and Ellington.
The rapper Kendrick Lamar, a Black man working in a Black genre, won the 2018 music Pulitzer for “DAMN.” The Pulitzer website describes that album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.” A sensibility well expressed, but for Ellington, perhaps, too late.
So let’s fix this. In 1999, the Pulitzer Prizes did award Ellington a Special Citation, “bestowed posthumously, commemorating the centennial year of his birth, in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture.” OK, but that was too late. The snub was so egregious that it needs to be undone more directly. The award given in 1999 was a fine gesture, but it was a safe move by then, when audiences and white cultural power brokers had long come to understand and acknowledge the glory of Ellington’s work.