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Jeff Simon: Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize-winning "DAMN" is an extraordinary achievement

It was, said Jonathan Yardley at the time in the Washington Post, "a confession, however unwitting, of the cultural establishment's hostility to the new and the different and the unsanctioned. It was a narrow-minded judgement by a narrow-minded group of men."

That was written in 1965 in response to the refusal of the Pulitzer Prize's 11-member oversight board to give the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in music to Duke Ellington for his life work, as the three-member jury had unanimously recommended. When they heard the news, two members of the jury resigned. Even Pulitzer winner Aaron Copland admitted Ellington has "deserved it for so long."

No Pulitzer for music was awarded in 1964. Nor for 1965 either. Too much blood under the bridge. Too much anger -- racial, cultural and otherwise. A president had been murdered a year-and-a-half earlier. Four years later, the president's younger brother Bobby would be murdered, too, as well as Martin Luther King, America's greatest civil rights leader, and some would offer, one of the greatest American figures of any kind.

They should all have been around April 16 when Kendrick Lamar's record "DAMN" became the first large-scale rap work -- and, of course, first rap album -- to win the Pulitzer Prize. Social and anti-social media were full of the "cultural establishment's hostility to the new and different and the unsanctioned." Very little in American social media is as common as narrow-mindedness.

We tend to speak of "The Pulitzer Prize" as a monolith. It's nothing of a sort. It's almost two dozen different prizes, each with its own history and its own highly variable record for credibility. Best, by far, are the straight-ahead journalism prizes of the sort that went this year to the Washington Post and New York Times for their walloping and innovative #MeToo coverage. They virtually invented a subject that would, in mere days afterward, turn America upside down.

Far less credible over the years have been the Pulitzers for commentary and criticism (which somehow couldn't find ways to give awards to Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris even though they helped change forever the way America would think of both movies and journalistic criticism).

Least credible of all was the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Even classical musicians would admit feeling little or no excitement for most of the classical works awarded the prize, despite exceptions from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston and William Schuman.

Duke Ellington seemed not only the wrong color for them but he had, in his magnificent many-decade career, committed the greatest sin of all: He had composed and led and recorded an enormous amount of music that was hugely popular. People danced to it. They romanced to it. (Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was particularly cynical and funny about listeners' attachment to the erotics of his horn. He'd finish soloing in front of the band and as he walked back to his seat, he'd pass Ellington at the piano and mime the action of counting money. He was telling his leader about his value to the band: "That's me boss. Money.")

Other musicians all over the world performed Ellington's music. They're still performing it more than half a century later.

Kendrick Lamar? Seriously? So sputtered all those angry and narrow-minded geezers on the web.

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Just as Duke was in 1965, he was not only the wrong color for some stuffed shirts (though jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis and Henry Threadgill had long since broken through) he was popular for pity's sake.

All 14 tracks of Lamar's "DAMN" charted on Billboard's "Hot 100." It was the first platinum-selling record of 2017. Rolling Stone called it the Album of the Year.

Then, on April 16, came the Pulitzer Prize Jury's judgement that Lamar's record was "virtuosic." It "unified [America]  by its vernacular attention and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern American life."

Which was another way of saying, simply, that it's a stunner.

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Believe me, I'm no rap fan. I'll never be one. I'm not only more at home with jazz, but with such conservative past winners of the Pulitzer Prize as Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Walter Piston's Symphony No. 3. I'm never likely to listen to "DAMN" for pleasure.

But I'd have had to be deaf as a haddock -- and as narrow-minded as a '60's Pulitzer Board -- not to hear what an extraordinary achievement "DAMN" is.

What hit me forcefully, in fact, is not only its power as music (jazz drum titan Max Roach: "Black musicians are always forcing white audiences to hear sound as music"), but its sweeping relationship to some other Pulitzer categories that are not always robust -- fiction and poetry.

Listen to "Duckworth," the last song on "DAMN," and you've got a deeply affecting short story about a couple of black lives in America.

It begins with Lamar admitting, "It was always me vs. the world/Until I found out it's me vs. me." It's no big step at all to hear that as a close relative of John Dryden in a lyric he wrote for a song by Henry Purcell, "I am myself my own fever."

"DAMN" has the complexity of voices you find in novels and epic poems. While it is raw and personal, it is also -- as is so much hip hop -- an open invitation to a community to be part of something that has been electrifying American audiences for a few decades now. All sorts of other artists -- including Rihanna -- appear on "DAMN" with Lamar.

These are ambitious American artists who know full well they're a movement. Presenting Lamar with a Pulitzer was a recognition of just how serious hip hop has become -- and how accomplished , too. It has its own traditions of collage (sampling), which owe absolutely nothing to the symphonies of Charles Ives and the art of Kurt Schwitters.

I've not listened to more than, say, six hours of rap in my entire life, but I came away from "DAMN" with an entirely different attitude toward hip hop after I fully expected to scoff.

The Pulitzer Prize was, in fact, a distinctly minor victory in 2018 for rap. It was a major -- and enormously liberating, I think -- victory for the Pulitzer Prize.

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