Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The campaign for a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington in the 1971 film "Adventures in Jazz (Jazz Odyssey)"
Louis Panassié
CC-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Duke Ellington in the 1971 film "Adventures in Jazz (Jazz Odyssey)"

Last week, author, musician and jazz historian Ted Gioia started a petition to correct a long criticized decision by the Pulitzer Prize Board in 1965.

Inspired by the International Olympics Committee's recent decision to reinstate the gold medals won by Jim Thorpe in 1912, music historian and author Ted Gioia is petitioning to restore the 1965 Pulitzer Prize that was proposed to be awarded to Duke Ellington for his entire body of work.

Ellington, the most prolific American jazz composer, wrote or collaborated on over one thousand compositions, many becoming jazz standards still played today. He also scored several films and composed stage musicals.

Duke Ellington - Things Ain't What They Used To Be (1962) [official video]

The Pulitzer Prize for Music was established in 1943 to "recognize music in its larger forms as composed by an American."

That awkward definition has caused a number of disputes over the years, with the Pulitzer juries and advisory boards bickering over the exact meaning of the phrase "music in its larger forms." It leans toward classical compositions, and for decades the Pulitzer ignored other styles of music.

In 1965, the Pulitzer juries decided there was no one major work deserving of the award. Instead, they suggested a special citation be given to Duke Ellington for his entire body of work to that date. But the Pulitzer Board refused, and no prize was given that year.

Ellington publicly joked, "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." He claimed to be too busy composing and performing to care about such things. According to jazz writer Nat Hentoff, Ellington was hurt and angry, but he'd never show that to his band or to the public.

The Pulitzer finally recognized a jazz work in 1997, awarding the prize to Wynton Marsalis' "Blood on the Fields."

In 1999, in honor of Ellington's centennial, the Pulitzer issueda special citation "in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture."

"Ellington was a deserving candidate back in 1965, and the significance of his legacy has become all the clearer with the passage of time," Ted Gioia writes. "Giving him the 1965 prize is the right thing for Duke Ellington, the right thing for the Pulitzer, and the right thing for American music."

Noted composers and past winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music who have signed the petition include John Adams, David Lang, Tania León and Caroline Shaw.

New York Times Opinion writer John McWhorter joinedcalls for the prize to be awarded. In his column, he noted that all of the composers awarded Pulitzers for music in the 1960s were white and less familiar to many than Ellington.

Read Gioia's Substack article here, and view the petition here.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.