Monday, May 14, 2007

Ornette Coleman Wins a Pulitzer

The Pulitzer board is discovering Jazz. Not only did Ornette Coleman win one for his latest CD, Sound Grammar, but John Coltrane was awarded a Special Citation. Thelonious Monk received one last year. To me it's always good when the market for Jazz music is expanded. That means it will be easier for me to find the CDs that I want because they will be pushed the same way that the latest pop garbage is pushed.

I don't think the Pulitzer Prize is going to expand the market though. As much as I like Ornette and Jazz, I'm through kidding myself that it has mass appeal. As important as it may be to the history of music, the fact is that as a Jazz fan, I'm part of a dwindling minority. And as tiny as the appeal of Jazz is to the music consumer, the appeal of Ornette Coleman among Jazz fans is even smaller. Ornette has always been "out there". I like "out there", I own a bunch of his albums, and I've seen him in concert three times. I was at the Sound Grammar concert in Ann Arbor Michigan. It was a good concert, but I didn't think it was a great concert. I'm glad I went. Ornette has acheived "elder statesman" status. That takes a lifetime, so who knows how much longer he's going to be with us? The Sound Grammar CD was recorded in Germany. Had it been the Ann Arbor show, I would have bought it immediately. Eventually I'll get it. It just doesn't seem important right now. A friend that I attended the concert with, has a bootleg copy of the show, but it's not the complete show.

The first time I saw Ornette, he was with his Prime Time band. It was a free concert in Detroit. There was a band before him. As soon as he began, people began leaving. About half way through the show, my date asked how much longer he was going to play. My answer, "until everyone is gone."

The second time I saw him was on the Song X tour, with Pat Metheny. Recently I met someone who was also at that show, but he went to see Metheny. Big mistake. They played Ornette's music. He didn't last the whole show. For this latest one, we were all Ornette Coleman fans. Nobody left.

As for the Pulitzer, from what I've read about past awards, especially when it comes to news reporting, it's become increasingly politically motivated. Can this also be true about the music awards? According to Terry Teachout,
So what's going on here? Let's start with a little history. The Pulitzer Board embarrassed itself in 1965 when it overruled that year's jury, which voted to give Duke Ellington a special award for lifetime achievement. It would have been the first time a Pulitzer went to a jazz musician. Ellington clearly qualified for the honor, but the board thought otherwise. The Duke, as usual, had the last word. "Fate is being kind to me," he said. "Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." (Ellington was 66 at the time.)

What made the decision especially galling was that the Pulitzer Prize had--and has--a bad reputation among music professionals. Prior to 2004, Pulitzer juries consisted of four composers and a critic. Classical composers are famously cliquish, so the prizes were usually given out to members in good standing of classical music's old-boy network, often to pieces that soon vanished without a trace. (Ever heard of Quincy Porter's Two-Piano Concerto?) Some were worthy, others less so, but the award itself came to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.

More recently, the Pulitzer Board approved the granting of special posthumous awards to Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and--yes--Ellington. Mr. Marsalis's award was rightly seen as a deliberate attempt to widen the scope of the main prize by giving it to a jazz composer for the first time. But most jazz is improvised, not notated, meaning that few of the greatest jazz musicians would have qualified for a Pulitzer. So the board changed the rules, making recorded music eligible and increasing the number of noncomposers on the five-person jury from one to three. The result? Mr. Coleman won this year's prize, and the jury also gave a special award to John Coltrane. (Thelonious Monk received a similar honor in 2006.)

I believe devoutly in the beauty and significance of jazz, and I love Mr. Coleman's bold, innovative music. But by giving the Pulitzer Prize to a good-but-not-great album that doesn't even pretend to meet its eligibility requirements, the board has debased the value of the music prize still further. As for the special award, why single out Coltrane now, great as he was? Why not Charlie Parker--or Louis Armstrong, for that matter? It's hard not to wonder whether the board is trying to atone for past blunders by playing an arbitrary game of catch-up.
I don't know what criteria they use to award a Pulitzer, and I don't care. I do know that when Detroit has its annual Jazz festival every Labor Day Weekend, Hart Plaza is packed for the entire long weekend. Of course all the music is free. The problem is that there are multiple stages and lots of crowd noise, so the music is hard to hear. A few years ago, my wife and I went down to hear Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin in a quartet setting. The piano volume was turned up so high the sound was distorted. Being on one of the smaller stages though, they had no choice if they were going to be heard. People will attend in droves if it's free. Ask them to pay to hear the musical gifts of masters who have spent lifetimes honing these gifts, and they can't be moved from in front of their TV sets.

I'm going to stop now or I'm going to start ranting in a most unpleasant manner. Besides this has gone from being about Ornette Coleman to a commercial for Jazz.

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At 4:21 PM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

My husband loves jazz. I enjoy it as well, but he LOVES it. He played in a small jazz band years ago..The Blue Knights.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Harry said...

Cool. He probably knows all of the musicians I mentioned. What does he play?

My wife thinks I get carried away. All I ever want as presents are CDs (jazz) and books.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

He plays the trumpet. Still does, but not as much as he would like, do to lack of time. We have Latin Jazz down here which is enjoyable.

Well, at least your wife knows what to get you for gifts and will know you like the choices she makes!

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Pam said...

I enjoy JAZZ but hardly have any in my home now that I think of it! I have always enjoyed listening to Duke Ellington. Thanks for sharing!
My hubby listens to a jazz radio station many times in his car.


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