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Unusual choices for arts Pulitzers

Times Staff Writer

A contentious drama pick, an apocalyptic novel by one of the nation’s most reclusive writers and one of the first awards to a jazz musician were among the arts Pulitzers announced Monday.

Cormac McCarthy, a rarely interviewed figure who has long been one of the most distinctive voices writing about the American West, won the fiction award for his novel “The Road.” Set in the days after a never-explained apocalypse, the novel, which was recently selected by Oprah Winfrey for her on-air book club, is both stunningly bleak and subtly warmhearted as it traces the wanderings of a man and his son.

McCarthy is best known for “All the Pretty Horses,” the first of the so-called Border Trilogy.

The music Pulitzer, which had only once gone to a jazz musician -- and even then to an orchestral work, Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields,” in 1997 -- went to free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman for his album “Sound Grammar.”

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Coleman is one of American music’s freest spirits. Starting out as a bebop jazz saxophonist in Los Angeles half a century ago, he was first dismissed as a Charlie Parker clone playing wrong notes.

In fact, Coleman was a harmonic and melodic innovator who invented free jazz as he significantly helped move it into an experimental tradition that was parallel to what was occurring in art music at the time but wholly original in sound, shape and sentiment.

“Sound Grammar,” recorded live in Germany in 2005 and featuring Coleman playing saxophone, violin and trumpet in his quartet, is a vivid, ever restless re-imagining of jazz styles, whether smoothly traditional or strikingly otherwise. In 2004, awards for music Pulitzers were altered to allow a wider spectrum of American music.

The drama Pulitzer went to David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” a play widely praised by critics but also potentially fraught with controversy.

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The play, about an investment banker and his wife trying to come to terms with their 4-year-old son’s accidental death, is a conventional family drama that Times theater critic Charles McNulty found, in its West Coast premiere last year at the Geffen Playhouse, to be “too truthful, too spirited, too wise to be depressing.”

But the five-member nominating jury, consisting of three theater critics, a theater professor and Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, did not include “Rabbit Hole” among its three nominees, opting instead for lesser-known figures doing more experimental work than Lindsay-Abaire, who has long been firmly in the regional theater mainstream with widely produced comedies such as “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo.”

The nominees were “Orpheus X,” by Rinde Eckert; “Bulrusher,” by Eisa Davis; and “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” by Quiara Alegria Hudes.

The 17-member Pulitzer board couldn’t reach a required majority vote on the nominees and faced a second consecutive year without awarding a prize in drama, Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler said Monday. “Rabbit Hole” also had been “mentioned favorably” in the jury’s report, Gissler said, and the board, by a required three-quarters majority, sidestepped the nominees and gave it the prize.

To skeptics, the Pulitzers have a long history of stodgy arts choices, especially in music.

In 1965, the Pulitzer jury tried to honor Duke Ellington with a special award but was overruled by the board; he never won a Pulitzer in his lifetime.

Similar conflicts kept Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” from winning awards even after selection by committees or juries.

Both works are now acknowledged as unimpeachable classics.

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Four years ago, composer John Adams, who had just won a music Pulitzer, complained that the award typically ignores “most of the country’s greatest musical minds” in favor of academic composers.

The other awards this year went to Lawrence Wright for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” in general nonfiction; Debby Applegate for “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher,” in biography; Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff for “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation,” in history; and Natasha Trethewey for “Native Guard,” in poetry.

The late saxophonist John Coltrane and Los Angeles author Ray Bradbury were awarded special citations.

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scott timberg@latimes.com

Times staff writers Mark Swed and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.


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