Let’s get this disclaimer out of the way: I think it’s cool that Ornette Coleman won the Pulitzer prize. I’m a big fan—the disappearance of my Free Jazz LP in a move was a sad, sad day. (Yes, there’s a CD. But I had it on vinyl, man.) And if the jury wanted a controversy-free non-classical pick, they couldn’t really have done better. Coleman’s earned respect across genres in way that almost no one else can. Maybe that’s why the announcement has seemed rather anti-climactic. Then again, maybe it’s because the non-classical nature of this year’s prize was almost certainly a foregone conclusion.
What do this year’s Pulitzer music jury and the Supreme Court have in common? That one’s easy: they’re both stacked decks. And, coincidentally, they both delivered this week exactly what their selection was intended to deliver. The A.K.s who give the O.K.s started to chip away at Roe v. Wade, a reversal which should come as a surprise to exactly no one: when the last two justices were put on the court, this was what their supporters were aiming for. And a look at the Pulitzer jury makes it pretty clear that this was going to be a non-classical year, come hell or high water. Coleman, in fact, hadn’t even been nominated. Justin Davidson reports:
As jurors huddled for a weekend in March to go through the hundred-plus scores and recordings, someone noticed that despite the official desire for submissions in jazz, film music and other genres, Coleman’s latest CD, “Sound Grammar,” wasn’t in the pile. Another juror, ex-Timesman John Rockwell, sent someone out to scare up a copy.
(That’s got to rankle all those other composers who forked over fifty bucks with their nominating applications.) Jazz belongs in the mix, but do you get the feeling that prizes are going to start being passed around from genre to genre every year? It’s like instead of a de facto lifetime achievement award, it’s a de facto stylistic affirmation award. The politics around the Pulitzers will be the equivalent of the 19th-century Parisian Prix de Rome. (In as much as they aren’t already.) Here’s something else: for the drama prize, the board rejected all three of the jury’s recommendations and gave the hardware to David Lindsay-Abaire’s non-finalist Rabbit Hole. I’ll bet that within a decade, they’ll pull the same thing with the music prize, ignoring the jury and opting for a board member’s no-doubt-persuasive argument for some pop-jazz equivalent of Profiles In Courage, one handily available for purchase or download. (Historically, this has been bad news for composers: in 1965, the jury recommended Duke Ellington for the prize—it was the board that decided to give no award that year. Same in 1992: any committee that can screw over both the Duke and Ralph Shapey in the exact same way is something special.)
I don’t think awards are all that important, but the mechanisms behind them are interesting for what they say about the field. And it seems pretty clear that, at the moment, the outside perception of art music has become as much an exercise in stylistic categorization as it is in popular music. Staking out a genre is as important, maybe more important, that the moment-to-moment, note-to-note discourse, or the structure and rhetoric of an individual piece. For over a decade, I’ve been hearing new music that gleefully jumps the lines between various schools and styles, and I’ve never been of the opinion that there are musical goals that are limited to one genre or vocabulary only—I’m a confirmed eclecticist. But for now, we may be in for some historical housecleaning, celebrating more stylistically extreme composers and performers as critics and observers make an effort to fix points on the cultural landscape. I guess it’s a certain kind of entertainment to watch awards committees try and bend their heads around issues that the practitioners worked out for themselves years ago.