Give Duke Ellington the Pulitzer Prize He Was Denied in 1965

Image by Louis Panas­sié, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Duke Elling­ton has been com­mem­o­rat­ed in a vari­ety of forms: stat­ues, murals, schools, and even Unit­ed States com­mem­o­ra­tive stamps and coins. In his life­time he received a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame, a Gram­my Life­time Achieve­ment, a Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom, and a Légion d’hon­neur. His posthu­mous hon­ors even include a Spe­cial Pulitzer Prize award­ed in 1999, the cen­ten­ni­al year of his birth. 34 years ear­li­er, in 1965, he’d been named for–but ulti­mate­ly denied–a reg­u­lar Pulitzer Prize for Music, a deci­sion his appre­ci­a­tors are now try­ing to reverse.

“The jury that judged the entrants that year decid­ed to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” writes jazz crit­ic Ted Gioia. “They rec­om­mend­ed giv­ing the hon­or to Duke Elling­ton for the ‘vital­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty of his total pro­duc­tiv­i­ty’ over the course of more than forty years.” This broke from tra­di­tion in that the Pulitzer Prize for Music usu­al­ly hon­ors a sin­gle work: in 1945 it went to Aaron Cop­land for his bal­let Appalachi­an Spring; in 1958 it went to Samuel Bar­ber for his opera Vanes­sa; in 1960 it went to Elliott Carter for his Sec­ond String Quar­tet.

Alas, “the Pulitzer Board refused to accept the deci­sion of the jury, and decid­ed it would be bet­ter to give out no award, rather than hon­or Duke Elling­ton. Two mem­bers of the three-per­son judg­ing pan­el, Winthrop Sargeant and Robert Eyer, resigned in the after­math.” Elling­ton, for his part, react­ed to this unfor­tu­nate devel­op­ment with char­ac­ter­is­tic equa­nim­i­ty: “Fate is being kind to me,” he told the press. “Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young” — to which Gioia adds that “he was 66 years old at the time, and in the final decade of his life.”

In an effort to retroac­tive­ly award Elling­ton his Pulitzer Prize for Music, Gioia has has launched an online peti­tion. If you sign it, you’ll join the likes of John Adams, Michael Dir­da, Steve Reich, and Gene Wein­garten, all Pulitzer win­ners them­selves, as well as oth­er lumi­nar­ies and enthu­si­asts who’ve voiced their sup­port — near­ly 9,000 of them as of this writ­ing. “We assume that Pulitzers are award­ed to work that qual­i­fies as for the ages, that push­es the enve­lope, that sug­gests not just clev­er­ness but genius,” writes the New York Times’ John McWhort­er. “There can be no doubt that Ellington’s cor­pus fits that def­i­n­i­tion.”

Revers­ing the com­mit­tee deci­sion of 1965, Gioia writes, would enhance “the pres­tige and legit­i­ma­cy of the Pulitzer — and every award needs that nowa­days, when many have grown skep­ti­cal about our lead­ing prizes.” What’s more, “it’s the prop­er thing for the music — because every time gen­uine artistry is rec­og­nized it sets an exam­ple for the present gen­er­a­tion, and lays a foun­da­tion for the future.” In recent decades, the aes­thet­ic range of Pulitzer-hon­ored music has widened con­sid­er­ably: McWhort­er points as an exam­ple to 2018’s win­ner, Kendrick Lamar’s album Damn. It could be that, as far as Elling­ton is con­cerned, it’s tak­en the rest of us 57 years to catch up with him. Sign the peti­tion here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Such Sweet Thun­der: Duke Elling­ton & Bil­ly Strayhorn’s Musi­cal Trib­ute to Shake­speare (1957)

Duke Ellington’s Sym­pho­ny in Black, Star­ring a 19-Year-old Bil­lie Hol­i­day in Her First Filmed Per­for­mance

Decon­struct­ing Ste­vie Wonder’s Ode to Jazz and His Hero Duke Elling­ton: A Great Break­down of “Sir Duke”

How Old School Records Were Made, From Start to Fin­ish: A 1937 Video Fea­tur­ing Duke Elling­ton

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (3)
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  • Janet Weir says:

    Thank you for con­tin­u­ing to hon­or Duke. My men­tor, a jazz drum­mer, called him Amer­i­ca s most pro­lif­ic com­pos­er.

  • Randy Kinnamon says:

    I signed the peti­tion based of this report­ing, with­out inves­ti­gat­ing the issue, but now I regret it. I dis­cov­ered that Duke Elling­ton was posthu­mous­ly award­ed a Pulitzer in 1999 and the award was pre­sent­ed to his fam­i­ly. Appar­ent­ly, Mr. Gioia is not sat­is­fied with that sig­nif­i­cant ges­ture and instead wants a posthu­mous award retroac­tive to 1965.

    But no report­ing has revealed the 1999 award, which I think is mis­lead­ing. Had that award been revealed in your report­ing I would not have signed the peti­tion.

  • Jake Wong says:

    Duke was award­ed the “Spe­cial Cita­tion”, not the win­ning Pulitzer Prize. Get your facts right, Randy! In fact, the open­ing para­graph in the arti­cle clear­ly stat­ed it. You must be relat­ed to Mar­jorie Miller.

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