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Marsalis Awarded Jazz Music’s First Pulitzer

Jazz got a Pulitzer Prize for the first time Monday when Wynton Marsalis won the award for “Blood on the Fields,” an oratorio that follows the agonizing journey of two slaves, Jesse and Leona, from capture and the terror of the middle passage to their sale in a New Orleans marketplace and into the hardships of plantation life.

“The fact that an award normally given to people in classical music goes to a jazz musician after all these years of all the musicians writing all of their jazz, that this was worthy of being recognized, that’s a sign of progress,” Marsalis said from his home in New York.

A three CD-set of the 2-1/2-hour work should be out this summer.

Stephen Millhauser, a novelist who has labored in deepest obscurity for a quarter-century, won the fiction award for “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer.”

Frank McCourt, a retired high school teacher who burst on the scene last year at the age of 66 with a hugely popular and highly praised story of his Irish childhood, “Angela’s Ashes,” won in the biography category.

Jack N. Rakove won the history prize for “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,” while Richard Kluger took the award in general nonfiction for “Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.”

Lisel Mueller won in poetry for “Alive Together: New and Selected Poems.”

Underlining the crisis in American theater, there was no Pulitzer in the drama category for the first time in a decade.

All the Pulitzer winners receive $5,000 and the assurance of a respectful obituary. But with the fiction award, in particular, it can mean something more: a shot at a sizable readership. In Millhauser’s case, it probably will bring his five out-of-print books back into circulation.

In the biography category, before McCourt’s award, only two memoirs had won in 25 years: those of columnist Russell Baker in 1983 and Vietnam veteran Lewis Puller in 1992. But McCourt is on a streak. “Angela’s Ashes” has 661,000 copies in print, and the autobiography has been reviewed ecstatically. Last month, it picked up a National Book Critics Circle award.

“I keep thinking of something that the poet Yeats said: ‘In moments of great joy, we’re comforted by the knowledge that tragedy lurks around the corner,”’ McCourt said from a hotel in Cambridge, Mass.

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