Royal Stokes explains succinctly in the introduction to his new book Growing Up with Jazz that his switch in interest from the study of the Classics (i.e. Latin, Greek) to writing about jazz was the right choice. That choice allowed him to humanize his life, a focus all too neglected in a typical advancement in career. As a result, Stokes has been active on all levels of chasing the music, including having a radio show or two, writing for Downbeat, JazzTimes and The Washington Post, as well as authoring four jazz-related books.
Growing Up with Jazz provides only sketches of a wide range of musicians: Art Blakey to Jane Monheit, Don Byron to Claire Daly and Pam Bricker, to lesser known individuals (at least to me), such as Luluk Purwanto and Patrizia Scascitelli. The text is made up of transcriptions from recorded conversations with the musicians, some of which are extremely interesting. The strength of the book comes in its educational value. Some recounting from these musicians one could not find anywhere else. Stokes's selection of musicians is from a scattered base. Some of the interviewees refer to the reputable vanguard, which I found an important part of the content of the book; that fact, in itself, help to widen the scope of the material that was honed to center on revelations of influences and origins.
However, the layout of the book sticks to a rigid format. Only three broadly titled chapters open the umbrella for Stokes's classifications of musicians dealt with in the chapter. In the reading, it seems that these classifications become lost. In other words, when I was reading about Jane Monheit, I did not remember that her interview was placed in the "Keepers of the Flame" chapter and, for me, it did not really matter however I would contextualize her words. Also, within the chapters, the separation between one interview and another is never marked, for example, with the name of the musician to follow. So, once again, in the reading, I would finish one interview, concluded in a strange, seemingly unresolved spot, skip a space and move on to a recitation from another musician. It was extremely frustrating to want perhaps to refer to a passage and not be able to find it easily unless I had marked it with a pencil or crimped the corner of a page, both of which I did do. An index to the book is a Godsend to retrieving information.
Stokes's approach to his subject matter is enthusiastic, but clinical. He put together the transcriptions to give flow to the words. And he inserted sentences here and there to bridge one section of an interview to another or to simply present a new interview. I would have enjoyed an unfolding of his insight to shape the nature of the person he was interviewing. For over thirty years, he has traveled, listened to and talked with musicians from every jazz corner. Certainly he could have created a far more absorbing presentation than that which exists here.
There is no doubt in my mind that Stokes is tightly drawn, polite and proper in his demeanor. And jazz for him is a pleasurable release from the pristine quality of his education and possibly his upbringing. I believe that he could have shared that pleasure with poetic, expressive descriptions of his personal convictions and viewpoints interwoven throughout the interviews. Then he could have told some real stories. Twenty-four of them...