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The decision by the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board in May 1965 to reject the recommendation by its Music Jury that Duke Ellington should be awarded a Special Citation created an outcry in the music community and in civil rights circles.
In the aftermath of this, the City of New York decided to confer on him its Bronze Medallion – the highest award it can give a civilian.
Ellington received the award on August 2, 1965 at a reception in front of the New York City Hall.
In an one and a half page article in the August 14 issue of The New Yorker, its jazz critic and columnist Whitney Balliett tells about the event.
“Many people of the jazz world and many city officials were on hand for the presentation.” Willis Conover, Nesuhi Ertegun (of Atlantic Records), Arthur Spingarn (President of the NAACP) were among them. Duke arrived with “his wife, his sister Ruth and his nephew Stephen”.
At the end of the ceremony acting New York Mayor Paul Screvane presented the award and read the inscription on the medal: “Presented in appreciation to Edward Kennedy Ellington, Known as Duke–‘Musician of Every Year’–distinguished composer and worldwide Ambassador of Good Will–By Robert F. Wagner, Mayor of the City of New York, by the hand of the Acting Mayor, on this 2nd day of August, 1965.”
Before this Duke’s personal physician, Dr. Arthur Logan and the pianist Billy Taylor had made personal laudatory remarks and a band including Clark Terry, Billy Taylor, Jerome Richardson, Ben Tucker and Joe Benjamin had played some Ellington music. A five-piece Departement of Sanitation band had done this as well.
The whole ceremony was recorded and can be heard below.
25 years later, in 1999, Ellington was posthumously awarded a special Pulitzer Prize “commemorating the centennial year of his birth, in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture.”
Was it “better late than never”?