Ornette finally gets props

It’s great that Ornette Coleman was honored by the Pulitzer board but looking back at his history and their history reveals some unpleasant truths about said board.

First of all, the news in detail, courtesy of New Music Box:

Sound Grammar by Ornette Coleman has been awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The $10,000 award is for a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the previous year. This is the first time in the history of the Pulitzer Prize for Music that the prize was awarded to a recording. Sound Grammar, a collection of live performances recorded in Germany in late 2005 which was released commercially on September 12, 2006 on Coleman’s own label, also named Sound Grammar, is the first recording of new material by Coleman in nearly a decade and his first live recording in 20 years. The disc features a total of eight compositions (six brand new ones plus new versions of “Song X” from 1985 and “Turnaround” from 1959) performed by Ornette Coleman (violin, alto saxophone, trumpet), Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga (bass), and Denardo Coleman (drums).

I heard first heard the news whispered among a group of jazz musicians who were surprised and delighted by this — hell, I was too. Even with the recent changes on the board related to its rules (and its make up of judges), this was a wonderful bolt out of the blue. Not only was a great musician/composer/theorist/philosopher being honored but he was still around to enjoy this overdue recognition.

And overdue it certainly was. Coleman took the jazz world by storm some 50 years ago and it’s only half a century later that Pulitzer and the Grammys have decided that he’s finally earned the right to get props. Think about that — 50 years. How avant-garde is that? Of course, in the early years of jazz itself, it was derogatorily seen as “jungle music” (not as in dance but a racist insult) and also deemed not to be music at all by the crusty gatekeepers of culture. When Ornette came along and rethought the whole idea of chords and melody, he was derided by many people for years (decades, even) as being un-musical. Even later when he tried to teach “Skies of America” to an orchestra in the early ’70s, they dismissed him and his music until he demonstrated the piece on his horn. Even when Duke Ellington was suggested as a Pulitzer candidate, he was denied during his lifetime and he responded with his usual grace and charm. It was only decades after his death that he was deemed worthy of such an honor. Ditto Thelonious Monk. Pretty f-ing shabby for two guys who immeasurably shaped 20th century music.

To compound these indignities, as an L.A. Times article notes, Ornette is only the third black recipient with the first one being given out in 1996 (!). “It’s a bold choice — a hip choice, even” the Times says and though I agree he was long overdue for recognition, it was also a disgracefully long-time-coming choice also.

I had seen Coleman perform with the same band as on Sound Grammar at Carnegie Hall a few years ago and was enthralled by his technique and his (then) new compositions. Hopefully, this recent recognition will help to fuel his future work.

One thing that strikes me about this late recognition is that like the Katrina disaster, it’s not only a race issue but also a class issue. Jazz had been marginalized in its early years and after the popularity of big bands, it was relegated back to the margins. Where it was once snobbishness that kept it out of the mainstream, it was later conversely seen as too highbrow or intellectual to enjoy — it didn’t have a 4/4 beat and you couldn’t easily dance to it. Coleman’s recent props aren’t going to do much to change it (even with the Red Hot Chili Peppers making a banner for him at the Grammys) but it will at least give more respect to the post-bop branch of jazz that doesn’t meet the respectability requirements that Wynton Marsalis (aka the first jazz artist to get a Pulitzer) and Stanley Crouch have imposed on it. Or at least I’d like to think so… They care deeply about jazz but only when it’s from a certain time period or bows to those early years. Crouch once swore to me that Marsalis was an Ornette fan and now that he’s been deemed safe by Pulitzer and NARAS (for the Grammys), it would be great for WM to bring more modern, post-bop fare to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Hey, I can dream, can’t I…?

I also wonder what cutting edge musical forms will finally get their due recognition 50 years from now. Grammys have already done right by hip-hop, doling out awards to many rappers, taking much less time to recognize it as an art-form than the free jazz that Ornette championed.