While I am always thrilled when a creative artist in any discipline is recognized for his or her achievements in our society, it was rather disheartening to see that there were no people involved with music among the 24 recipients of the 2009 MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called “genius awards” (which were announced yesterday and are posted on their website). Since they started giving out the fellowship in 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has had a long history of recognizing important people in the music community. And the previous music recipients form quite an illustrious list (see sidebar) which includes composers from a wide range of stylistic proclivities, including many people from the jazz tradition as well as an elite group of interpreters, instrument builders, a pioneering music educator, and even one of our most articulate music critics. Where else can you see the names Ali Akbar Khan, Meredith Monk, Cecil Taylor, and Charles Wuorinen side by side? [Ed. note: Thanks to composer Barak Perelman for pointing out the accidental omission of composer, trombonist, and music historian George Lewis (2002) from the initial posting of this essay.]
It’s important to note that many of the folks who have been honored with this important and financially significant—it’s now $500K—accolade have eluded the juries of such prestigious anointers in our community as the Pulitzer Prize, the Grawemeyer Award, and membership in the American Society of Arts and Letters. In fact, Ralph Shapey, whom the Pulitzer board denied a Pulitzer the year a jury unanimously submitted only his work for consideration (1992), was awarded a MacArthur a full decade earlier, in 1982, the very first year the fellowship was awarded to anyone doing music. That same year they also bestowed the honor on Conlon Nancarrow who had never been so recognized by anyone else.
Admittedly, there have been other years when the MacArthur folks have chosen not to honor a music person, the very first year in fact, but it’s the first time there has been such an omission since the year 2000. But in this year that we have lost so many treasured musical geniuses from so many musical genres—among them MacArthur Recipients George Perle and George Russell as well as Louis Bellson, Eddie Bo, Joe Cuba, Snooks Eaglin, Lukas Foss, Maurice Jarre, Leon Kirchner, Dina Koston, Joseph Maneri, Nicholas Maw, Max Neuhaus, and Les Paul—it seems to be a particularly poignant lacuna. Since you can’t apply for a MacArthur Fellowship—they are proposed by a group over 100 selectors from all over the country and from a wide variety of backgrounds who remain anonymous, understandably—we can’t suddenly start applying in droves. And considering the remarkable breadth of people chosen throughout the fellowship’s history, I in no way question their judgment. But I am all the more eager for several additional music makers to be among the chosen next time around.