Pianist and composer Anthony Davis has won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music with his opera The Central Park Five.
“Premiered on June 15, 2019 at the Long Beach Opera, [it is] a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful,” said the Pulitzer jury, chaired by jazz guitarist and Berklee College of Music professor Bill Banfield.
The opera’s libretto was written by Richard Wesley.
A professor of music at the University of California – San Diego, Davis is also an acclaimed free-jazz pianist and improviser, best known in that capacity for his long association with Wadada Leo Smith. Although he has pursued a career as a leader, he has not recorded as such since the late 1980s.
The Central Park Five is Davis’ eighth opera. His first, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, premiered in 1992. He has cultivated an operatic style that uses the language of 12-tone contemporary music but is also heavily indebted to jazz rhythm and percussion, as well as R&B. (The Central Park Five even incorporates an allusion to George Clinton’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)”).
The opera’s subject is a notorious incident in which five African-American teenagers were falsely convicted of the 1989 assault and rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. Now U.S. president Donald Trump became associated with the case after taking out a full-page advertisement in all four of New York’s major daily newspapers—the Times, the Daily News, the Post, and Newsday—calling for the teenagers’ executions. (Trump is a character in The Central Park Five.) Their conviction was overturned in 2002.
Davis discusses the opera at length in this video interview conducted late last year for the University of California.