Wynton Marsalis, the first African American jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize

Stephen Nartey March 07, 2023
Wynton Marsalis/Photo credit: WPSU

The very first time a music piece won a Pulitzer Prize was in 1943. It was a classical rendition titled Cantata No. 2, a Free Song composed by William Schuman, adapted from the poem, “Drum-taps,” by Walt Whitman, which was written during the middle of World War II.

Following the recognition of the classical tune in 1943, the closest a jazz song came close to winning a Pulitzer was in 1965. But the assertion of the jury, which found no artist deserving of the coveted prize at the time, led to the resignation of two jurors who had recommended jazz artist, Duke Ellington, from the panel. A suggestion to present Duke with a special citation was also declined by the board. It would take half a century before a classic jazz piece would be presented before the panel to pronounce a verdict.

The breakthrough came in 1997 when the Pulitzer board agreed Wynton Marsalis’ classic, “Blood on the Fields,” should be awarded the prize. It is the highest award accorded to the jazz genre, but what makes it even more historic for the black community is the fact that it was won by an African American. After Wynton was bestowed the honor, the Pulitzer Prize jury posthumously awarded Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane.

For jazz lovers, this feat with “Blood on the Fields” did not come as a surprise. It is a three-hour class detailing the chilling experience of slavery, which brings the moment home to music lovers through the use of intimate human drama which is woven into imageries of whippings, murders, and cruelty on the plantation.

“Blood on the Fields” has a way of gripping the audience with the orchestra, using the imagery of a slave ship, sorrowful voice, and sober mood to depict the pain of the victims of slavery. Wynton breathes life into the experiences with the use of blues at the beginning of the song. The rendition offers optimism and sorrow in one fold to the audience, according to play bill. Jazz lovers applaud the brilliance with which Wynton eulogizes the enslaved Africans, whose blood gave birth to America. He uses the story of two victims of slavery, Jesse and Leona, to demonstrate their tortuous journey to freedom. Wynton’s work is seen as having broken the color barrier for many black jazz artists in the United States.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 8, 2023


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