Ornette Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for music on Monday for his 2006 album, "Sound Grammar," the first jazz work to be bestowed with the honor.
The alto saxophonist and visionary who led the free jazz movement in the 1950s and 1960s, won the Pulitzer at age 77 for his first live recording in 20 years. The only other jazz artist to win a Pulitzer is Wynton Marsalis, who won in 1997 for "Blood on the Fields," a three-hour oratorio on slavery.
The Pulitzer Prize for music, an award founded in 1943, has always focused on classical music. Legendary jazz composers Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were honored only with posthumous citations in 1999 and 2006, respectively. In 1965, a Pulitizer jury had recommended Ellington for a competitive music prize, only to be overruled by the board. Ellington, then in his 60s, joked in response, "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young."
In 2004, Pulitzer administrators decided to expand the criteria for the music prize, encouraging a broader range of music that included jazz, musical theater and movies.
Coleman, who grew up poor in a largely segregated Fort Worth, Texas, didn't first believe his cousin when he told Coleman that he had won the Pulitzer. He spoke by phone to The Associated Press from his New York City home minutes after hearing the news, and reflected on his long, unlikely journey.
"I'm grateful to know that America is really a fantastic country," said the jazz legend, recalling when he first asked his mother for a saxophone. "And here I am."
What began for Coleman as a fascination for the bebop of Charlie Parker, led him on a path to discover — through music — what he calls "the culture of life and intelligence."
On "Sound Grammar," which was recorded at a 2005 concert in Ludwigshafen, Germany, Coleman also plays trumpet and violin. He was awarded a Grammy lifetime achievement award in February.
"Of all the languages that human beings are speaking on the planet, it's some form of grammar," Coleman said of his album. "For me, playing music is analyzing grammar."
Though Coleman can speak of large, heady ideas in a way not dissimilar from his often conceptual music, he said he has never wanted to be inaccessible.
"I've been doing what I think I'm trying to achieve ever since I was teenager and I was only doing it because of the quality of human beings," Coleman said. "I've never really thought about being smart; I've only really thought about being good."
Some members of the Pulitzer board such as Jay Harris, a professor at the University of Southern California, have said the Pulitzers have "effectively excluded some of the best of American music" by concentrating fully on classical works. Coleman's win suggests that may be changing.
When asked whether he hopes more jazz musicians will follow him in winning Pulitzers, Coleman replied, "I would like to help them if I could."