Hour 8: Pulitzer and Polar Prizes – Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Wayne Shorter

Henry Threadgill

Much of Jazz at 100 Today! so far has focussed on younger musicians who are making their mark on the music. In this hour, we look at the late career honors for Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith who have been honored by the Pulitzer Prize Committee and Wayne Shorter, the recipient of the 2017 Polar Prize.

In 1965, the Pulitzer Prize for music jury decided that no single work was worthy of the prize that year and chose instead to recommend a special citation for Duke Ellington, who would have been the first jazz composer to be recognized with a Pulitzer. Famously, rather than honor Ellington or recognize the validity of jazz, the Pulitzer Committee gave no music award that year, prompting the 66-year-old Ellington to say, with irony masking his anger, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.”

Thirty-two years later, in 1997, Wynton Marsalis’s jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields,  became the first jazz work to be awarded the Pulitzer. The Committee belated awarded Ellington a posthumous citation in 1999. In 2007, Ornette Coleman was honored for Sound Grammar. Most recently, Wadada Leo Smith’s epic four-disc release, Ten Freedom Summers, was a finalist for the award in 2013 and Henry Threadgill was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his work In For A Penny, In For A Pound.

Ten Freedom Summers – Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers is a sequence of 19 long works inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. John Sharpe, in AllAboutJazz, wrote, “Smith manages the trick of being free and expressive but within a controlled framework, occasionally manifest as tunes and themes, into which even solos fit. As a composer he allows space for extemporization within the superb interpretations of his charts. The whole cycle goes through the gamut of emotions associated with the Civil Rights campaign: hope, despair, anger, triumph, seriousness, fun, anxiety.”

Thurgood Marshall and Brown Vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954. Wadada Leo Smith Golden Quintet
(Wadada Leo Smith-tp, Anthony Davis-p, John Lindberg-b, Pheeroan akLaff-d, Susie Ibarra-d). From Ten Freedom Summers. Cuneiform Records. 2012.

In For A Penny, In For A Pound – Pulitzer Prize Winner
In announcing Henry Threadgill as the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music, the Pulitzer Prize website wrote, “In for a Penny, In for a Pound is the latest installment in saxophonist/flutist/composer Henry Threadgill’s ongoing exploration of his singular system for integrating composition with group improvisation. The music for his band Zooid … is no less than his attempt to completely deconstruct standard jazz form, steering the improvisatory language towards an entirely new system based on preconceived series of intervals. His compositions create a polyphonic platform that encourages each musician to improvise with an ear for counterpoint and, in the process, creating striking new harmonies.”

Tresepic (For Trombone And Tuba). Henry Threadgill Zooid
(Jose Davila-tb/tu, Henry Threadgill-as/fl/bfl, Liberty Ellman-g, Christohper Hoffman-cel, Elliot Humberto Kavee-d/per). From In For A Penny, In For A Pound. Pi Recordings. 2014.

Wayne Shorter – Polar Prize Laureate
Founded in 1989, the Polar Prize is a Swedish international award given annually to one contemporary and one classical musician. Sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of Music, the prize is awarded for “significant achievements in music.” Following Dizzy Gillespie in 1993, Quincy Jones in 1994, Keith Jarrett in 2003, and Sonny Rollins in 2007, Wayne Shorter was the Polar Laureate in 2017. This award comes at a time when Shorter is both playing more freely than ever and composing orchestral music of complex structure. The award followed his 2013 release, Without a Net, and the 2016 recording of his next project, Emanon, finally released in 2018 . Without a Net captures Shorter’s quartet of 10 years (Shorter on tenor and soprano, Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums) live and lively in concert. The three discs in the Emanon box also feature the quartet, with one disc including a 50-minute suite with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Zero Gravity to the 10th Power. Wayne Shorter Quartet
(Wayne Shorter-ts/ss, Danilo Perez-p, John Patitucci-b, Brian Blade-d). From Without A Net. Blue Note 2013.
Prometheus Unbound. Wayne Shorter Quartet with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
(Wayne Shorter-ts/ss, Danilo Perez-p, John Patitucci-b, Brian Blade-d). From Emanon. 2018.

At the time this recording Wayne Shorter is 86, Henry Threadgill is 76 and Wadada Leo Smith is 78. While formidable improvisors, they are each composing moving music of increasing complexity and structure. Institutions that until recently would not have recognized the value of their contributions are increasingly open to honoring their genius.

Reich, Howard. (2016, June 20). Nieman Foundation. The Story Behind The First Pulitzer For Jazz. https://nieman.harvard.edu/articles/the-story-behind-the-first-pulitzer-for-jazz/

Sharpe, John (2012, July 8). AllAbout Jazz. Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/wadada-leo-smith-ten-freedom-summers-by-john-sharpe.php

Ratliff, Ben. (2013, May 3). New York Times. Stirring and Sad, a Jazz Montage of a Struggle. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/arts/music/ten-freedom-summers-by-wadada-leo-smith.html

Turner, Mark F. (2015, May 12). AllAboutJazz. Henry Threadgill Zooid: In For A Penny, In For A Pound. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound-henry-threadgill-pi-recordings-review-by-mark-f-turner.php

The Pulitzer Prizes. The 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Music. In For A Penny, In For A Pound, by Henry Threadgill (Pi Recordings). https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/henry-threadgill

Turner, Mark F. (2013, February 7). AllAboutJazz. Wayne Shorter: Without A Net. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/without-a-net-wayne-shorter-blue-note-records-review-by-mark-f-turner.php

Sullivan, Mark. 2018, September 14). AllAboutJazz. Wayne Shorter: Emanon. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/emanon-wayne-shorter-blue-note-records-review-by-mark-sullivan.php

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