A Pulitzer for Duke Ellington! Ted Gioia champions the cause. Will he win? Sign the petition.

Portrait of the young Ted Gioia at the piano, before early arthritis ended his performing career.

It takes 5,000 signatures on a change.org petition to get media attention. And it worked like a charm for musician and jazz scholar Ted Gioia. He’s now doubled that with more than 10,300 signatures. (You can sign, too, here or on the link at the bottom of the page.)

His campaign: A posthumous Pulitzer for Duke Ellington, who was denied the honor way back in 1965. As I write, “Duke Ellington” is trending on Twitter.

Here’s what happened:

“In 1965, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music recommended that jazz composer Duke Ellington receive the award in honor of his lifetime legacy of excellence. The Pulitzer Board denied the request, and decided to give no award in music that year rather than honor an African-American jazz composer. In the aftermath, two of the three jury members resigned in protest.

Duke Ellington in India (Creative Commons)

“The time has come to rectify this unfortunate decision, and name Duke Ellington as the winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The recent precedent of Jim Thorpe‘s reinstatement as sole winner of the 1912 Olympic gold medals, taken from him 110 years ago, makes clear that even after many decades these wrongs can still be righted. Ellington was a deserving candidate back in 1965, and the significance of his legacy has become all the clearer with the passage of time. 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.”

John McWhorter of the New York Timesagrees: “I’m hoping it stimulates a big, beautiful noise that undoes this wrong.” He finds it unlikely that racism wasn’t involved in the Pulitzer decision-making.

He continues: “We assume that Pulitzers are awarded to work that qualifies as for the ages, that pushes the envelope, that suggests not just cleverness but genius. There can be no doubt that Ellington’s corpus fits that definition.”

“I’ll never forget deciding, in my early 20s, that I wanted to know what the big deal was about Ellington and popping in a CD with a recording of 1927’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy.’ Just the opening, in all of its blue, narrative and outright odd soaring, made the proverbial hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was one of those “What is this?” moments. I remember marveling about it with my father, a lifelong jazz fan, with him smiling and saying, “John, you got it!’ Indeed, Ellington was something one ‘got.’ Like James Joyce, the Coen brothers or Charles Mingus, you might not quite get what the hubbub is about at first, but when you do, watch out. ‘Mood Indigo’ opens with muted trombone on melody playing up high, then clarinet playing down low, then muted trumpet playing somewhere in the middle — deliciously weird! The result is a gentle astringence that results in an uncommon kind of tenderness.” (Read the whole thing at the NYT here.)

As of yesterday, Ted wrote in his Substack column, “The Honest Broker”: “There has been no response from the Pulitzer board. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But the media has just started paying attention to this initiative.”

You can read the whole back story here. Says Ted: “Revisiting the matter today would simply require the Board voting to accept the original jury recommendation. 

“A dozen other Pulitzer winners have already expressed their support.” And a number of American composers have also signed: John Adams, John Luther Adams, William Bolcom, Philip Glass, David Lang, Tania León, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Caroline Shaw.

I love the evocative photo of a young Ted above, before arthritis at a young age ended his career as a performer and composer. Want to hear one of Ted’s musical compositions? Check out here. And check out the story about it here.


Postscript from Ted Gioia:

I am now awaiting a response from the Pulitzer board.

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the many of you who have supported this worthy cause. This is out of our hands, but we’ve made a historic effort, and my hope is that Duke Ellington will get the Pulitzer Prize he was denied in 1965.

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