In a career that has seen no shortage of groundbreaking actions and well-deserved honors, jazz icon Ornette Coleman achieved yet another historical distinction on Monday: winning the Pulitzer Prize for music for his 2006 album Sound Grammar. Although Wynton Marsalis won a Pulitzer in 1997 for Blood on the Fields, which is an oratorio on slavery, Sound Grammar is the first jazz work to earn the award.
The 77-year-old saxophonist-trumpeter-violinist was also bestowed with a Grammy for lifetime achievement in February. It appears as if the general public has finally caught up to Coleman, whose career has been at least partly defined by being well ahead of the curve. In 1959, when the majority of those who had heard Coleman’s music dismissed it as noise, winning a Pulitzer was unfathomable.
Founded in 1943, the Pulitzer Prize for music has always focused strictly on classical works, eschewing the cultural significance of the blues and jazz, and even traditional folk music, making it representative of, if not outright racial ignorance, then at least classism and therefore part of the white male hegemony that’s ruled the arts for ages. Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were honored with citations, but those were in 1999 and 2006, long after both had died.
Fortunately, in 2004, Pulitzer administrators expanded the criteria for the music prize to include jazz, musical theater and film soundtracks. Still, don’t expect any leather-clad metalheads or golden-grilled MCs to be walking around with a Pulitzer any time soon.
Sound Grammar, which was released on Coleman’s own label of the same name, was recorded at a 2005 concert in Ludwigshafen, Germany, and features his son Denardo on drums and two bassists, Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga.