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Journalist and Historian W. Royal Stokes Dies at 90

The former JazzTimes editor and Washington Post critic wrote five books on jazz history

W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes

W. Royal Stokes, a jazz critic, historian, and former editor of JazzTimes from 1988 to 1990, died May 1 at his home in Elkins, West Virginia. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by his son Sutton Stokes, who said that his father had been in hospice care for the past week at his home in Elkins. Cause of death was myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition related to leukemia.

A writer for 80 of his years and a jazz lover for nearly as long, Stokes was proud of his accomplishments as a critic and journalist. He fondly recalled sitting in his car outside venues in his hometown of Washington, D.C., cobbling together his notes from concerts to make a review that he would then phone into The Washington Post for the morning paper. “When you know you have to make a phone call at midnight, the intellectual adrenaline comes to the fore,” he remarked.

Stokes was also an accomplished historian of the music. He lectured in jazz history at the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Virginia, and George Washington University and wrote five books on the subject. He was a dogged advocate of women instrumentalists in jazz as well. “Feminists around the globe should burn their bras in support of … W. Royal Stokes,” jazz critic Bridget Arnwine wrote.

Yet that career was a late development: Stokes made his published debut as a jazz critic in 1972, at the age of 42. He had previously earned a doctorate in classical antiquity, and taught Latin and Greek language, literature, and history at five universities across the United States and Canada before plugging into the hippie lifestyle in the late 1960s—a lifestyle that ultimately brought him back to D.C. and to writing about the music he’d loved growing up.

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

William Royal Stokes was born June 27, 1930 in Washington, D.C. to William Hughes Stokes, a program planner for Western Electric Company, and the former Helen Turner, a housekeeper. Except for a few years in Gibson Island, Maryland, he grew up in the District (later learning that during his time in Gibson Island, the family home became an after-hours jazz club). Stokes went to Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington before attending the University of Maryland, the University of Washington, and Yale University, where he earned a Ph.D. in the classics in 1965. (His education was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army, during which Stokes was posted stateside and trained in artillery.) He went on to teach at Brock University, the University of Pittsburgh, Tufts University, and the University of Colorado.

Stokes had become an avid jazz fan in the 1940s as a young teenager. By the time he was 16, he had stockpiled a collection of some 500 78-rpm records, leading his brother to suggest that he pursue a career as a jazz historian. It wasn’t until 1969 that he decided to make good on that suggestion. He left his position at the University of Colorado, intending to pursue jazz history in postdoctoral studies at the University of Chicago that fall; instead, he met Erika Hartmann (whom he would marry) and “dropped out”—joining the counterculture of the period and wandering the U.S. in a van. On a visit to his family in D.C. over Christmas of 1970, he made the decision to settle back in his hometown and immerse himself in the city’s hippie community.

It was through that immersion that he began his career in jazz, first as a disc jockey for Georgetown University radio station WGTB (run at the time by a cohort of radical activists), then as a writer for Tailgate Ramblings—the official newsletter of the Potomac River Jazz Club. In 1978, he pitched the Washington Post with his writing and soon found himself working as the newspaper’s jazz critic for the better part of the next decade. Stokes had also begun writing for JazzTimes (then known as Radio Free Jazz) in the mid-1970s; he became the magazine’s editor in 1988, remaining in the position until 1990.

For nine years, Stokes was the editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly newsletter of the Jazz Journalists Association (which gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2014). He also wrote for National Public Radio’s Jazz Live! and completed a trilogy of novels, Backwards Over, in addition to his books about jazz. The most recent of the latter, the anthology The Essential W. Royal Stokes Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Reader, appeared last spring.

He remained living in the D.C. area until 2007, when he and his wife semi-retired to the central West Virginia town of Elkins. Stokes could never retire from writing, however, continuing to contribute to several publications and maintaining a blog about jazz at his website, wroyalstokes.com. (He last updated it in March.) In a Washington Post profile published in February, Stokes told writer Chris Richards that he was working on “an epistolary memoir.”

In addition to his son Sutton, Stokes is survived by his wife, Erika Hartmann Stokes; another son, Neale Stokes of Los Angeles; two grandchildren; two nephews and a niece.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.