After a distinguished academic career, Stokes hosted his own jazz program on public radio and wrote about jazz for The Washington Post. He's written three books about jazz - his third, entitled "Growing Up with Jazz" has just been released in paperback. We visit his home near Davis and Elkins College.
Thought I heard Buddy Bolden say…
“You’re nasty, you’re dirty, take it away
You’re terrible, you’re awful, take it away”
I thought I heard him say…
"That song comes from a Jelly Roll Morton recording in 1939," says Royal Stokes. "A song that he was very well-known for – Buddy Bolden’s Blues. I used the tune as the opening intro for my radio show back in the 1970s and 1980s over two public radio stations in Washington, DC. Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneer in jazz – a pianist, singer, band leader and arranger. And Buddy Bolden was the legendary founder of jazz. He was the very first band leader in New Orleans in the mid-1890s."
Seventy-eight year old Royal Stokes was born inWashington,DC and grew up alongside theChesapeake Bay. After teaching at universities here in theUS, inCanada andItaly he became a full-time jazz writer.
Over the years Stokes has interviewed more than a thousand jazz musicians – among them the bass player Leonard Gaskin, the drummer and bandleader, Art Blakey, pianist Billy Taylor, not to mention a great number of overlooked women jazz artists. His interest in jazz started very young.
"I fell in love with jazz as a 12-year-old at the very outset of World War 2," Stokes explains. "My oldest brother Bill joined the Navy and left behind a half dozen or so 78 rpm boogie-woogie records. I had paid no attention to these very strange sounds coming from my brother’s bedroom next to mine when he played them. But when he left, of course I had to explore that bedroom.
"I found the records and put them on his turntable and I was blown away by these sounds. I was wowed by pioneer boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson playing Boogie-Woogie Man. I began to spend my newspaper route money and allowance on 78 rpm jazz, boogie-woogie and blues records, until, by my mid-teens, I had amassed a collection of 500 or so 78 rpm’s, which was quite a handsome collection for a youngster in those days.
And I continued to listen to the music. I eventually heard jazz live. I made a trip to New York in my early 20s and went around to all the clubs. I followed jazz over the years – all the way through the period of my academic life. I was a professor of Greek and Latin languages and literature. And then I left the academic life in 1970 and became a jazz radio programmer and a jazz writer, going back to my first love – which was of course jazz."
Reporter Jean Snedegar asked Stokes: "Is there a connection in your mind between Greek and Latin language and literature and jazz? It seems like a huge leap."
"It may in a way, but I really love the classics in terms of literature and civilization – the classics are a study of Greek and Roman history and Greek and Latin literature," Stokes explains. "And so I switched over to another classic art form – the music jazz – which really is America’s classic music."
"How did you get to West Virginia? It seems like an unlikely center of the jazz world."
"About four years ago my wife Erika and I – with her retirement coming up in a couple of years from the school system in Montgomery County, Maryland – we were looking for a so-called 'retirement community'. We made weekend visits to likely towns and cities throughout Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and we kept coming back to Elkins.
"First of all, we loved West Virginia – the beauty of it – and we returned again and again to Elkins – many more times than we did to other towns. We were attracted by Davis and Elkins College, by the very active arts scene here and just by the general ambiance of the town. "
"One of the specialties of your books and interest in jazz seems to be to promote women jazz artists."
"Yes, most especially women instrumentalists. In my most recent book Growing Up with Jazz, Dr Billy Taylor has this to say about women jazz instrumentalists, 'Over all those decades, they were a great and under-utilized resource.'”
Stokes says it’s the culture of jazz as it grew up over the decades that excluded women instrumentalists.
"Women were always there. Groups that date from the 1930s and 1940s were led by women and filled with women, but the only women who turned up in the bands and combos led by men during all those decades were the pianists. You never came across a woman playing trumpet or saxophone or drums in those bands and combos led by men. I guess it is the culture of jazz, but in this day and age, it should no longer be that way."
In his “retirement” Royal Stokes is working on his fourth book about jazz artists as well as a memoir of his life.