In Remembrance: W. Royal Stokes ’65PhD Died on May 1 2021

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W. Royal Stokes, 90, an award-winning jazz journalist and author who worked to expand opportunities for women in jazz, died May 1, 2021, of myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition related to leukemia. Stokes died at home in Elkins, West Virginia, in the presence of family and with the music of Bunk Johnson playing quietly in the background. 

Stokes was born in Washington, DC, in 1930. He grew up in homes in DC and Baltimore and on Gibson Island, Maryland, where—at the age of 13—he heard his first boogie-woogie piano 78s and began his lifelong devotion to jazz music. 

In 1948, Stokes graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in DC. Later that year, he enlisted in the army, taking advantage of a one-year enlistment option available only to 18-year-olds, and was assigned to a field artillery brigade based at Fort Lewis. 

From the University of Washington, he earned a BA in history in 1958 and an MA in classics in 1960, going on to complete a PhD in classics at Yale University in 1965. Stokes taught classics at the Universities of Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Washington; Tufts University; and Brock University. He led a Tufts study-abroad program for classics students in Italy for two years.

As the 1960s progressed, Stokes found himself increasingly drawn toward the counterculture and the anti–Vietnam War movement. In 1969, Stokes left academic life and, as a self-identified hippie, commenced a peripatetic existence that eventually brought him to Washington, DC with his partner, Erika, whom he would marry in 1971. (Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.) 

In DC, Stokes became involved with the local jazz scene, first as a disc jockey and later as a freelance journalist. He contributed regularly to the Washington Post. Later, he edited Jazz Times and Jazz Notes, the journal of the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA). He was recognized in 2014 with the JJA’s lifetime achievement award at a gala at the Blue Note in New York City.

A cultural exchange between Washington, DC, and Bangkok, Thailand, in the early 1980s was Stokes’s first experience reporting on an international jazz festival, but it was far from his last. In addition to Thailand, where he was quartered with a government minister and even met the country’s king, a jazz fan, he attended numerous jazz festivals in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Finland.

In 1993, he published his first book, The Jazz Scene, the first of what would be three books of oral jazz history based on more than a thousand hours of recordings of his personal interviews with musicians. In 1996, for a book called Swing Era New York, he researched and wrote extended captions for a collection of never-before-published photos by the 1920s-era jazz photographer, Charles Peterson. In 2017, he published Backwards Over, a trilogy of novels that, although not autobiographical, drew heavily on his experiences during the 1960s and 1970s. In 2020, less than a year before his death, he published his final book, The Essential W. Royal Stokes: Jazz, Blues, and Beyond Reader, a collection of reviews, essays, interviews, and other writings from throughout his career.

Stokes is survived by his wife, Erika; his sons, Sutton and Neale; his grandchildren, Coen and Maya; a niece, Sue Becker; and two nephews, William Hughes Stokes IV and Robert Stokes. His wish for cremation was honored, and a non-traditional life celebration is being planned for the summer. More details will be announced.

—Submitted by the family.

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