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Jazz

W. Royal Stokes

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Family photo
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Courtesy of the Stokes family
Jazz journalist W. Royal Stokes

His obituary said he was “an accidental jazz critic with no formal musical training. His instrument was the typewriter.”
Paige Hansen has a remembrance of beloved jazz writer W. Royal Stokes.

As good as a musician may be, they depend on a good writer to translate their craft to a wider audience. They depend on a third party; someone to describe what it is they’re seeing or hearing. Sometimes it’s just too difficult to put those thoughts and feelings into words.

W. Royal Stokes was a natural at it.

The counterculture of the 1960s turned this Yale graduate and academic historian into a beloved jazz critic.

After a visit to his hometown of Washington D.C., away from his professor of history job in Colorado, Stokes was struck by the vibrancy of the exciting jazz music of the day.

His brother joked that he ought to become a jazz historian. That was the same brother who’d lent him the jazz records he’d grown to adore, like Benny Goodman.

“I think I was restless,” Stokes is quoted as saying. “I wanted something more connected with the current world.”

The historian packed his bags and traveled cross-country to the vibrant D.C. jazz scene.

It meant a head-spinning pivot from teaching the classics to washing dishes, volunteering as a DJ, and finally to writing reviews of groups he’d seen at clubs. He wrote the reviews in his car so that he could phone in a story by midnight for the morning newspaper.

“I returned to my first love, turning my hobby into my profession and my profession into my hobby,” he wrote.

For nine years, Stokes was the editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly newsletter of the Jazz Journalists Association. He also wrote for National Public Radio’s Jazz Live! program and completed a trilogy of novels.

He said: “You can’t begin to understand a musician unless you know how they came up. Mary Lou Williams said when she was the age of 3, she was already reaching up, trying to pick things out on the piano keys when she couldn’t yet reach the keyboard.”

And not only did he place Mary Lou Williams at the very top of his all-time best jazz list, he was a champion of female musicians because he saw first-hand how they were overlooked.

“I could see how women were being treated then, and they’re still being treated that way today,” Stokes said. “They’re still seldom [booked] at festivals, they still have fewer jobs in the clubs and concert halls, and this remains very disturbing.”

Stokes had a radio program on a Washington, D.C., radio station and received the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalists Association.

He continued writing well into retirement, posting last on his online blog in March, just two months before his passing. He was 90.