I don’t begin to understand the politics or external pressures behind the selection of the annual Pulitzer Prize awards, but it is gratifying to see the recognition given this week to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane – even though everything related to jazz and the Pulitzer is viewed through the lens of the initial shunning of Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis’ win for his 1997 recording Blood On The Fields.
In my field – journalism – the Pulitzer (which was, after all, originally a journalism prize) has always seemed relatively without controversy. It has often recognized the stellar work of lesser-known reporters and small-circulation newspapers, as well as being given to news organizations with the budgets to devote endless resources to a story. In literature and music, things get murkier. As an outsider, it would seem that in the realm of these artistic endeavours the Pulitzers resemble any of the other major U.S. awards: recognition for well-liked, predominantly mainstream, artists. Fans of Cormac McCarthy – a novelist justifiably compared to Ernest Hemingway – have been outraged for years that he has been passed over in favour of writers with less command of the language but more clout in the marketplace. As one of his fans, I’m pleased to see his name on this year’s list, although it’s ironic that it comes only after McCarthy’s latest book, The Road, was selected by Oprah Winfrey for inclusion in her “book club.” There are also those who would argue that The Road is not as deserving as earlier works like Blood Meridian or All The Pretty Horses.
The same argument can be made for Coleman’s Sound Grammar – a fine recording to be sure, but no Free Jazz, This Is Our Music! or Tomorrow Is The Question. Still, in this year that finds Coleman feted on the Grammy Awards and lauded at the International Association of Jazz Education conference, who can complain about whatever gives him his due after years of surviving in the wilderness.
Coltrane’s Pulitzer Special Citation is also overdue, but also welcome; again, perhaps the Pulitzer committee’s way of making amends for past exclusion.
Now, let’s hope that Cecil Taylor is on next year’s list. Like Coleman, he’s both a vital force in contemporary music and an innovator who should have been recognized years ago.