When will the Pulitzer Prize in music get it right?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 19 2006 6:45 AM

Sour Note

When will the Pulitzer Prize in music get it right?

Thelonious Monk. Click image to expand.
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."

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes widely about music. He can be reached atwar_stories@hotmail.com.

Indeed.

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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.

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