Get to Know Wynton Marsalis, The First African American Jazz Musician to Win a Pulitzer Prize

The first Pulitzer Prize for music was awarded in 1943. It was a classical interpretation titled Cantata No. 2, a Free Song by William Schuman, taken from Walt Whitman’s poem “Drum-taps,” which was written in the middle of World War II.

Following the classical tune’s recognition in 1943, the closest a jazz song came to winning a Pulitzer was in 1965. However, the jury’s conclusion that no musician was deserving of the prized prize at the time resulted in the resignation of two jurors who had suggested jazz artist Duke Ellington from the panel. The board also rejected a proposal to award Duke with a special recognition. It would be half a century before a great jazz piece was given to the panel for a decision.

In 1997, the Pulitzer board concluded that Wynton Marsalis’ classic, “Blood on the Fields,” should be awarded the prize. It is the greatest prize given to the jazz genre, but the fact that it was won by an African American makes it even more momentous for the black community. After Wynton, the Pulitzer Prize judges awarded posthumously to Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane.

This feat with “Blood on the Fields” came as little surprise to jazz fans. It is a three-hour workshop that details the terrifying experience of slavery and brings it to life for music lovers through intimate human drama weaved with images of whippings, killings, and cruelty on the plantation.

The orchestra in “Blood on the Fields” has a way of capturing the audience, employing imagery of a slave ship, a melancholy voice, and a solemn mood to represent the anguish of slavery’s victims. Wynton brings the events to life with the usage of blues in the beginning of the song. According to the playbill, the performance offers the audience both optimism and grief. Jazz fans admire Wynton’s skill in eulogizing the enslaved Africans whose blood gave birth to America. He tells the narrative of two slaves, Jesse and Leona, and their perilous trek to freedom. Wynton’s work is credited with breaking down the color barrier for many black jazz musicians in the United States.

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