The Washington Post

weekend A life filled with riffs

For longtime critic W. Royal Stokes, jazz has had a sustained presence.

- BY CHRIS RICHARDS chris.richards@washpost.com

‘One foot back in the past, one foot into the future.” That’s how the critic W. Royal Stokes describes the way he hears jazz after living 90 years on this dizzy planet — and it makes for a pretty good descriptio­n of how we experience life, too. It’s a continuity, a perpetual improvisat­ion, a negotiatio­n between what we know and what we don’t, a story that moves in ways we can’t predict.

No one could have predicted Stokes’s zigzag jazz life, including him. Born in D.C. in 1930, he was a teen obsessed with boogie-woogie records; then a student turned professor of Greek and Latin languages and literature and ancient history; then a turned-on-tuned-in-dropped-out hippie roadtrippe­r; then a volunteer radio DJ; then a voracious music scribe who published his first jazz review at age 42; then a freelance jazz critic for The Washington Post and, later, an editor at Jazztimes magazine.

His latest book, “The Essential W. Royal Stokes Jazz, Blues and Beyond Reader,” compiles his life’s work as a critic, and it overflows with concert reviews documentin­g D.C.’S eternally busy jazz scene, as well as heaps of interviews with the players, many of whom Stokes encouraged to reminisce as far back into their lives as possible.

You can’t begin to understand a musician “unless you know how they came up,” Stokes says over the phone from Elkins, W.VA., where he has lived since 2017. “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.”

As for Stokes, his fascinatio­n with jazz began with childhood dives into his big brother’s record collection — and it was confirmed a few weeks before his 18th birthday on a trip into the nightlife to see Louis Armstrong’s All-stars. But as ecstatic as that night felt to him, Stokes didn’t see a future for himself in that world. He remembers a family ride in his parent’s station wagon roughly a year later, in the fall of 1949. The topic of conversati­on: Royal’s career plans. His brother suggested he become a jazz historian. He was touched, but his parents scoffed.

Stokes served in the Army in the early 1950s, during the Korean War (he spent it all in artillery training and never left the United States), then returned to academia, eventually earning his PHD from Yale in 1965 and teaching at a handful of universiti­es. Then, in 1969, he decided to leave his post at the University of Colorado and hit the road. “I think I was restless,” Stokes says. “I wanted something more connected with the current world.”

He and his future-wife, Erika Hartmann, drove a Corvair Greenbrier van from Colorado to Texas to New England, finally landing in D.C. in 1970, where Stokes got a job washing dishes at a vegetarian restaurant in Georgetown.

Off the clock, he spun jazz records at Georgetown University’s WGTB and began writing about the music for a local newsletter, Tailgate Ramblings, which published his first jazz writing in 1972. Stokes approached The Washington Post in 1978, and before long, he was phoning in concert reviews from various area jazz venues for publicatio­n in the next morning’s newspaper.

He suddenly had a lot in common with the improviser­s he was out covering. “The majority of those reviews were written sitting

in my car for an hour decipherin­g the notes that I had taken at the One Step Down or the Kennedy Center,” Stokes says. “When you know you have to make a phone call at midnight, the intellectu­al adrenaline comes to the fore.”

Even when it was composed in the heat of the moment, Stokes’s jazz writing always looks forward and backward at once. In the “Reader,” there’s a 1979 Post review of the Art Ensemble of Chicago performing at the Bayou in Georgetown on a Thursday night in which Stokes describes the group’s intense exploratio­n of West African rhythm as “a paean to the past and window to the future.” In another “Reader” piece from 1983, he opens a short Post profile of Don Cherry, one of the more pathfindin­g jazz thinkers of the time, by noting Cherry’s affinity for his legendary forebears Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbeck­e.

That approach became something of a philosophy for Stokes. “In my reading and my research of the classics, I always had the sense that the tradition was so important. No Greek or Latin poet could escape the influence of Homer, for instance.” he says. “I look at jazz in the same way: a continuum.”

If the past is to remain vital to the future of jazz, it’s important to document the present accurately — which might be why Stokes became a champion of female instrument­alists in jazz after attending the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival in 1978. His “Reader” includes pithy profiles of pianist Shirley Horn, saxophonis­t Jane Ira Bloom, pianist Dorothy Donegan, saxophonis­t Deanna Bogart, trombonist Melba Liston and many others — most of which find Stokes thoughtful­ly stepping out of the frame, allowing these undervalue­d artists to speak for themselves.

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

His advocacy helped Stokes earn a lifetime achievemen­t award from the Jazz Journalist­s Associatio­n in 2014, and the prize itself, a glass obelisk, currently sits on a shelf in his home near his other books, including four additional jazz tomes and a trilogy of novels. Stokes says he’s working on another book, too: “an epistolary memoir,” he says.

What keeps him writing at 90? The same thing that keeps him brushing his teeth. It’s habitual. “I wrote a detective story — a five- or six-page detective story — at the age of 10. And that was 80 years ago!” Stokes says. “So it’s always been with me. And I’ve always been a reader. You learn how to write by reading.”

Here’s a more difficult question: Having committed decades of his life to bringing people closer to this marginaliz­ed music, what’s kept him interested in jazz? There’s a long pause. “It has so much soul,” he says. Then, an even longer pause. “And it swings.” These little silences feel cavernous, almost musical. The harder Stokes tries to describe what jazz is, the more it seems like he’s trying to describe what life is. “And I don’t know what to say beyond that.”

For more informatio­n about “The Essential W. Royal Stokes Jazz, Blues and Beyond Reader” visit wroyalstok­es.com.

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 ?? PHOTO ILLUSTRATI­ON BY JOSÉ L. SOTO/THE WASHINGTON POST/ISTOCK IMAGES ??
PHOTO ILLUSTRATI­ON BY JOSÉ L. SOTO/THE WASHINGTON POST/ISTOCK IMAGES
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 ?? DUDLEY M. BROOKS/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? In top photo, W. Royal Stokes sits with jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewate­r, who is holding a copy of his book “Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photograph­s of Charles Peterson,” in 1994 at D.C.’S Coco Loco. His latest book, “The Essential W. Royal Stokes Jazz, Blues and Beyond Reader,” compiles his life’s work as a critic. Stokes has profiled an array of jazz performers, including singer-pianist Shirley Horn, above right, and saxophonis­t Deanna Bogart. “I have to perform,” Horn told Stokes for a 1987 Washington Post profile. “There’s something that drives me. If I go too long without performing, I get crazy.” Based in Washington in the ’80s, the late singer and pianist made regular appearance­s at the now-shuttered One Step Down. In the late ’70s, Stokes became a champion of female instrument­alists. “I’m not playing to just get by or look like a girl playing a horn,” saxophonis­t Deanna Bogart told Stokes for a Washington Post profile in 1984. “I need to play as good as any guy up there.”
DUDLEY M. BROOKS/THE WASHINGTON POST In top photo, W. Royal Stokes sits with jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewate­r, who is holding a copy of his book “Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photograph­s of Charles Peterson,” in 1994 at D.C.’S Coco Loco. His latest book, “The Essential W. Royal Stokes Jazz, Blues and Beyond Reader,” compiles his life’s work as a critic. Stokes has profiled an array of jazz performers, including singer-pianist Shirley Horn, above right, and saxophonis­t Deanna Bogart. “I have to perform,” Horn told Stokes for a 1987 Washington Post profile. “There’s something that drives me. If I go too long without performing, I get crazy.” Based in Washington in the ’80s, the late singer and pianist made regular appearance­s at the now-shuttered One Step Down. In the late ’70s, Stokes became a champion of female instrument­alists. “I’m not playing to just get by or look like a girl playing a horn,” saxophonis­t Deanna Bogart told Stokes for a Washington Post profile in 1984. “I need to play as good as any guy up there.”
 ?? RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? ERIKA HARTMANN ??
ERIKA HARTMANN
 ?? W. ROYAL STOKES ??
W. ROYAL STOKES
 ?? J. KLIMAN ??
J. KLIMAN

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