||As a new musical season begins, we might
ponder the most astounding event of the last one. Wynton Marsalis shook the world, making
history as the first jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize -- even though, by any
commonsense reading of the Pulitzer guidelines, his winning work wasn't even eligible.
Is this good news, or bad? Good news, overall, I'd say, because it underlines a
new answer to an old question: What kind of music qualifies as art? Classical music alone?
Or anything created with a true artistic impulse?
Lately, the second answer had begun to prevail, but not at the Pulitzers, whose
board turned down Duke Ellington in 1965, even after its music jury had recommended him
for a special award. But now Mr. Marsalis has changed all that. His work -- "Blood on
the Fields," an oratorio about slavery, nearly three hours long -- is partly
improvised (gasp!) and tells its story in a down-home musical language. But still it won,
which I'd say is cause to celebrate, especially since -- "after years of
discussion," says Seymour Topping, the prizes' administrator -- the Pulitzer board
meant to make a change.
He said so publicly at an April press conference,
announcing this year's honorees. The 1998 guidelines, he announced, had even been
rewritten, "so as to attract the best of a wider range of American music."
Ladies and gentlemen of the non-classical world, start your engines! Though Mr. Topping
didn't say so, even a serious pop album might qualify.
But now for some painful questions. Is "Blood on the Fields" -- history
apart -- really any good? Well, it's certainly appealing, and beautifully crafted. Play
any part of it at random, and you'll sit up and listen. Of course it stood out from other
works submitted for the Pulitzer, not just because it's jazz, but because, unlike most
classical compositions, it sounds fresh and lively, and has audible roots in the outside
As I listened more, though, I started to get restless. Mr. Marsalis wrote the
text as well as the music, and words aren't his strength. Neither is originality.
Everything sounds familiar, even comfortable, unremarkably descended from earlier jazz.
And then there's the pacing. It's not just that the
piece is long; it doesn't move. A slave escapes, gets caught, gets beaten and, most
crucially, learns from his experience. But Mr. Marsalis can't sustain momentum through
this episode, the pivot of his story. He stops his music dead during the escape. Then he
drags out the beating and, conversely, makes the dawning of the slave's new consciousness
so short that it has no effect.
He's a fine musician, but hardly a musical dramatist. Maybe that's why his
Africans sound like contemporary African-Americans, as if he hadn't stopped to see, hear,
smell, taste and feel who they really were. I'm not saying he should have written African
music. But (like Verdi imagining ancient Egypt in "Aida") he could have evoked
the aura of another culture, without abandoning his own musical ways.
And then there's that little matter of eligibility. As material from Mr.
Marsalis's publicist plainly says, the piece had its premiere on April 1, 1994. But it won
the 1997 prize, awarded, as Mr. Topping spelled out for me, for music premiered no earlier
than March, 1996. How'd that happen? Even the recording, released this year on Columbia,
is dated 1995.
Here's the story. Mr. Marsalis made a few changes in the
piece and took it on an international tour this year, starting in January. His management
then submitted the 1997 version for this year's prize, saying that the revisions in effect
made it a new work. (Anyone can submit a composition for the Pulitzer, including the
What were those revisions? Mr. Marsalis's publicist gave me a list. At one point,
Mr. Marsalis rewrote a saxophone part and moved a chorus to a higher key. He cut a passage
for another section and added music for percussion and bass clarinet. All told, there are
seven changes like these, all of them tiny.
Mr. Topping wouldn't comment on these alterations, referring me to the chairman
of the music jury, Robert Ward, a composer and a Pulitzer winner himself in 1962, for his
much-performed opera "The Crucible." I asked Mr. Ward what changes might make a
revised work eligible. "Not a cut here and there," he answered, "or a
slight revision" of parts of the music, but rather something that changed "the
whole conception of the piece." I read him the list of changes in "Blood on the
Fields." Would those qualify? No, he gently answered, adding that "the list you
had here was not available to us, and we did not discuss it."
Another member of the jury, Howard Reich, jazz critic
for the Chicago Tribune, suggests a broader view. The jury was generous, and properly so,
he told me, feeling that "if a composer thinks something is expanded or different,
we'll consider it." Mr. Marsalis hadn't submitted "Blood on the Fields" in
1994, Mr. Reich adds, and "most of the planet had not heard it" then. So in a
way it really was new this year, and "no way in the world is it not eligible."
But either way -- and the simplest reading of the rules, in my view, implies the
work should not have won -- there's something else to ponder. When he announced this
year's prize, as we've seen, Mr. Topping also announced a dramatic change in the Pulitzer
music guidelines, effective next year. Yet in effect, the guidelines changed this year,
with no advance word. Why? Because the jury, as Mr. Topping told me, was asked to discuss
the pending change, which suggests that it was stimulated, at the very least, to think
more broadly than any jury before. Besides, two jazz professionals had been named to it,
Mr. Reich and John Lewis, pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. That's one more than had
ever been asked to serve before.
Result? Jazz could now win, but no one in the jazz world knew it. And when
"Blood on the Fields" got the award, there were jazz people -- I can't mention
their names, because they spoke to me off the record, but believe me, they're out there --
who muttered "fix." No other jazz work had even been submitted. Was Mr. Marsalis
leaked word in advance?
Let's be careful here, and remember that many jazz
musicians would naturally think that, because many of them hate Mr. Marsalis. He's too
old-fashioned, they feel, too angry at more radical jazz, too unoriginal and, maybe, just
too popular. And there's certainly no evidence of any fix. Mr. Topping swears no one knew
who'd be on the jury. The Marsalis people say they didn't know, and in any case had
submitted works before. Mr. Marsalis may have won simply because he, alone in jazz, had
the initiative, ambition, and the mainstream smarts to go for it.
Still, the whole business looks sloppy. The world will very likely be a better
place because "Blood on the Fields" won the prize. But next time the Pulitzers
make a major change, they should tell us all ahead of time -- and make sure everyone plays
strictly by the rules.
Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1997