In 1943, when the Pulitzer Prize committee established an award for America’s best music, many genres were flourishing.
Jazz was in full swing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin. Blues was on its way to producing greats like Muddy Waters. And Broadway was providing the popular hits of the day: “Oklahoma!”, featuring the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein, debuted that same year.
Yet the Pulitzers only considered one kind of music: classical. And in the more than 50 years since, classical has reigned, despite a rich musical landscape featuring the likes of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, James Brown, John Coltrane, the Motown era and the birth of new genres from rock to rap.
That may change on Monday, when this year’s Pulitzers are announced. While it’s safe to say R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” won’t get the top prize, recent rule changes make it more likely that the finalists — or even the winner — may reflect the diversity of American music.
“Going back more than a decade, there has been a concern on the Pulitzer board that this unwritten definition effectively excluded some of the best of American music,” said board member Jay Harris, a professor at the University of Southern California.
“The change that we were looking for is in the process of being achieved, the door is open now, wide open to the full range of excellence in American music,” he said. “I suspect that over time, you will see that reflected.”
Push to diversifyIn 1997, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz musician to win the prize, for his composition “Blood on the Fields” — though it was a classical piece. A year later, the board posthumously honored Duke Ellington. Last year, a special citation was given to Thelonious Monk, another jazz great, also posthumously.
But the real push to diversify came in 2004. After a study led by Harris, the board revised its guidelines to encourage more entrants from fields such as Broadway, jazz and movie scores. A significant change allowed compositions that made their debut as a recording, instead of a performance, to be considered.
Entrants were no longer required to submit a musical score, and the jury pool was changed from four composers and a music critic to three composers and a variety of other musical experts, including conductors and musicians.
“It was a very, very positive move expanding the parameters of the requirements,” says David Baker, a former music juror for the Pulitzers, a jazz composer and distinguished professor of music at Indiana University. “I think they have been very thoughtful in trying to consider the inclusion of all kinds of [music].”
Two classical compositions have won since 2004, by Steven Stucky and Yehudi Wyner. But Sig Gissler, who administers the Pulitzers, said the change has already made an impact in submissions.
“We’ve gotten more jazz submissions,” he said. “Broadway has been limited so far, as well as movie scores, but there’s been a definite increase in jazz.”
“So far, Britney Spears hasn’t submitted anything,” he joked.
‘These are not the American Music Awards’Whether any of Spears’ more esteemed colleagues in the pop world will ever make it as a finalist, let alone win, remains to be seen.
“We think that the general guidelines will encourage high quality music and discourage garage bands from submitting a CD,” said Gissler.
Still, in between Spears and the garage bands, pop has contributed some of the greatest music of all — Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen. Might there be room at the Pulitzers for them as well?
Perhaps, said Harris: “The jury would not on its face reject an entry of songs written by ZZ Top or Marvin Gaye or Leonard Bernstein or John Williams.”
However, he added, “these are not the American Music Awards, they are not for popularity. They are for excellence in American music. And that does limit what is likely to win the prize.”
Gissler is quick to point out that the Pulitzer board isn’t trying to make amends for past errors with attempts at a more inclusive pool of talent.
“We’ve awarded prizes to fine music over the years, and we don’t have any apologies for that,” he said. “At the same time, we feel that there are other dimensions of American music.”