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Wynton Marsalis is first jazz musician to win Pulitzer Prize

Wynton Marsalis says becoming the first jazz artist to win a Pulitzer Prize is not about him—it’s about the music. Marsalis won the prestigious prize for music for his epic jazz opera. Blood on the Fields, which focuses on the tragedy of slavery in America. Until now, the Pulitzer Prize for music has traditionally recognized classical compositions.

“I’m grateful that they recognized jazz music,” Marsalis, 35, recently told JET during a telephone interview from his home in New York City.

“I’m more grateful for the recognition of jazz music than for myself because a lot of other musicians deserved it. Duke Ellington should have gotten one.”

Ellington, one of the world’s most acclaimed composers and orchestra leaders, was denied a special Pulitzer for his lifetime achievement in music in 1965.

The modest, sophisticated Ellington said of the Pulitzer board’s refusal to recognize his work, “Fate’s being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young” (JET, May 27, 1965). Ellington was 66 years old at the time.

Noting that Ellington is one of his biggest musical influences, Marsalis says of the board’s snub of Ellington’s brilliant work at that time, “There wasn’t enough justice back in the time, but this is a different era.’

Marsalis also told “Good Morning America”, “You got to figure for Duke, at that point in his career, he had gone through so much by that time. You know, that whole generation of musicians, and Americans, really has been such a long, long march in our history toward actual democracy. And that march continues….”

He tells JET, “Duke is one of the foundations of the music.” Marsalis says he respects and loves not just Ellington’s style and class, “but the amount of music he wrote, the variety of it. The way he brought the music around the world to people, the sophistication of the music, the complexity of the music, the soul of the music and all those musicians who went around the world bringing the feeling of his music,” he raves.
+Proud that jazz, an original art form created by Black Americans, has won such a recognition, Marsalis notes, “It is my hope that this decision by the Pulitzer Prize Board will help promote and encourage the performance, education and preservation of jazz music in America and around the world.”

The eight-time Grammy Award-winning trumpeter stresses, “I’m very pleased that the Pulitzer for music is for a piece of jazz music…It means it’ll be more easy for other musicians who write in jazz. The value of the music is being recognized.’

Marsalis, who also is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, wrote the three-hour epic jazz opera for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and three vocalists: Cassandra Wilson, Jon Hendricks and Miles Griffith. It centers on two people Jesse (Griffith) and Leona (Wilson) who arrive in America on a slave ship. “It’s about slavery; it’s about a man and a woman and what you have to do to achieve freedom when you are still a slave,” he explains.

In the epic, Griffith’s character, a captured African prince, grows in self-knowledge and awareness aided by Leona (Wilson) and Juba (Hendricks). The opera won rave reviews on a recent international tour and will be released on compact disc this spring.

Marsalis says he hopes Blood on the Fields will prompt people to feel “a multiplicity of emotions: anger, sorrow, joy, disappointment, expectation, confusion, disgust and pity.” He says it’s important for all people “to be able to understand and have a memory and understanding of slavery, not for the purpose of revenge, but for the purpose of growth.”

Turning his attention once more to Ellington, Marsalis recalls that Ellington would have been 98 years old on April 29. Asked if Etlington were alive how he would celebrate his birthday with him, Marsalis notes, “I would get a band together and play a pile of his music and let him just sit back and listen to it.”

Source: JET [v91:n23. p60(4)]

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