Duke Ellington’s Posthumous Revenge

Long ago, I worked part-time at a Boston radio station that mostly played what its announcers solemnly called “serious music”—Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and other such cats. That reverential term was common around the country on such stations. On the air, I refused to categorize only European-derived classical music as “serious”—as if Armstrong, Ellington, Basie and Billie Holiday were only transient forms of impermanent cult music.

In 1965, the three-man music jury of the Pulitzer Prizes decided, for the first

He was 66 years old.

I spoke with Duke the next night and he was furious. “I’m hardly surprised,” he said, “that my music is still without official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind. By and large, in this country, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

It wasn’t until 1997 that a jazz composition achieved “respectability” and the Pulitzer board anointed Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields,” a three-hour oratorio with a cast of 14 musicians and three singers. With respect to Wynton—and I mean that because he keeps growing not only as a musician but also as an educator and composer—that composition does not measure up to Ellington, Mingus and Monk. But at least the Pulitzer door was partly opened. In 1998, the Pulitzer arbiters of musical worth awarded the deceased Duke Ellington a special citation to commemorate the centennial of his birth. I knew Duke well enough to believe that he would not have been appeased for the slight in 1965 with this “special” citation. It was more like an act of noblesse oblige than anything.

On June 2, 2004, however, the Pulitzer governing board announced that it is revising the rules for its music awards to reflect “a broad view of serious music.” From now on, not only chamber and symphonic compositions, operas, and choral works from what the board calls “the contemporary classical tradition” will reap nearly all the music prizes. A completely notated score will no longer be essential for consideration. And a recording of an improvisational piece will suffice for the performance requirements. Moreover, in addition to jazz being included for judging, the expanded criteria will include movie music and musical theater.

It appears that the primary democratizer of the Pulitzer music prizes was board member Jay T. Harris, who is the director of the Center for the Study of Journalism and Democracy at the University of Southern California. He was in charge of a yearlong study of reinvigorating the breadth and impact of the Pulitzer music awards.

Harris told the Boston Globe, “The changes in the wording are intended to make sure that the full range of excellence can be considered. The prize should not be reserved essentially for music that comes out of the European classical tradition. The intent is to widen the prize without weakening it.”

I’d like to know who was on the 1965 governing Pulitzer board that decided that even a passing recognition of Ellington would have weakened the stature of the Pulitzers. But the ancient, elitist, parochial view is not entirely gone. Pulitzer winner John Harbison described the widened standards as “a horrible development. If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels.”

I would say to Mr. Harbison what a jazz sideman once told me: “The classical guys have their scores, whether they have them on stand or have memorized them. But we have to be creating, or trying to, anticipating each other, transmuting our feelings to the music, taking chances every goddamned second.”

And that spontaneity was also part of Ellington’s orchestra. As Clark Terry explained to me about Duke: “He wants life and music to be always in a state of becoming. He doesn’t even like to write definitive endings to a piece. He’d often ask us to come up with ideas for closings, but when he’d settled on one of them, he’d keep fooling with them. He always likes to make the end of a song sound like it’s going somewhere.”

And on the bandstand, Dukes’ musicians weren’t just reading scores—even though their own names were on them. When a newcomer to the band asked Duke one night what he should play in a solo on a piece that night, Duke said: “Listen, sweetie. Listen!”

Originally published in November 2004

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