Szwed, John F. 1936-
Szwed, John F. 1936-
Born 1936. Education: Ohio State University, M.A., Ph.D., 1965.
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, director of the Center for Urban Ethnography, 1969-74; Yale University, New Haven, CT, John M. Musser Professor of Anthropology, Afro-American studies, music and American studies, 1982—, and former acting chair of African and African-American Studies and director of Graduate Studies in Anthropology. Columbia University, New York, NY, Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor of Jazz Studies, 2003-04. Brilliant Corners (nonprofit music production company), New York, NY, president. Musician and producer of sound recordings, including Tribute to the October Revolution in Jazz, by Rasheid Ali, Joe McPhee, Myra Melford and others, Evidence Records; and The Complete Recordings of Zora Neale Hurston, Evidence Records.
Grammy Award, 2005, for Doctor Jazz; Guggenheim fellowship; Rockefeller fellowship.
Private Cultures and Public Imagery: Interpersonal Relations in a Newfoundland Peasant Society, Institute of Social and Economic Research (St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada), 1966.
(Editor, with Norman E. Whitten, Jr.) Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, foreword by Sidney W. Mintz, Free Press (New York, NY), 1970.
(Editor) Black America, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1970.
(Editor, with Roger D. Abrahams and others) Discovering Afro-America, Brill (Leiden, Netherlands), 1975.
(With others) Afro-American Folk Culture: An Annotated Bibliography of Materials from North, Central, and South America and the West Indies, Institute for the Study of Human Issues (Philadelphia, PA), 1978.
(Editor and author of introduction, with Roger D. Abrahams and others) After Africa: Extracts from British Travel Accounts and Journals of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries concerning the Slaves, Their Manners, and Customs in the British West Indies, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1983.
Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1997.
Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2000.
So What: The Life of Miles Davis, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.
Crossovers: Essays on Race, Music, and American Culture, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 2005.
Mr. Jelly Roll, Mr. Lomax and the Invention of Jazz (sound recording), 2006.
Anthropologist and musicologist John F. Szwed is a prominent scholar of African American culture, including history, folklore, religion, and music. In recent years, he has become particularly noted for his expertise in jazz music, and in 2005 even won a Grammy Award for his Doctor Jazz, a book accompanying Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Libraryof Congress Recordings with Alan Lomax. Szwed first gained prominence among academics, however, as the coeditor of Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives. Working with Norman E. Whitten, Jr., Szwed collected ten papers on subjects ranging from dialect and music to religion and folklore. Some critics noted that much of the focus of the book is on folklore, though the work does not claim to be a study of only that topic. "Despite its limitations of scope," attested Munro S. Edmonson in the Journal of American Folklore, "Whitten and Szwed's book suggests that we are beginning to amass the relevant quantity and quality of expertise" in African American anthropological studies. Contemporary Sociology contributor Linvill Watson appreciated the volume as a "well-edited, coordinated collection [that] … gives an extensive sampling of recent anthropological research about the ways of living among groups of Black people in this hemisphere."
In a later volume that Szwed also coedited, After Africa: Extracts from British Travel Accounts and Journals of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries concerning the Slaves, Their Manners, and Customs in the British West Indies, the anthropologist tries to provide readers with insights into early white attitudes towards blacks by excerpting and commenting on some of the oldest documentations available on African-European encounters. Richard Price, writing in the Hispanic American Historical Review, questioned whether the oldest documents are truly available here, since "80 percent of the extracts date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." However, the critic felt that "the extracts themselves are, for the most part, pure gold." Some critics felt that the forty-eight-page introduction to the book is in many ways just as important as the rest of the text, with John C. Messenger commenting in Man that it "is of great value in that it not only sets the stage for the extracts to follow but presents a history of Afro-American studies."
Many of Szwed's later books focus on jazz music, including Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz, and So What: The Life of Miles Davis. The first of these is a sympathetic portrayal of the twentieth-century jazz composer, musician, and orchestra leader Sun Ra (born Herman "Sonny" Blount), whose idiosyncratic temperament and wild claims of space travel were perplexing to many. Still, Ra would come to be admired by jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie. Noting that Szwed is more anthropologist than music critic, Krin Gabbard remarked in American Music that "Szwed is especially convincing when he documents the origins of Sonny's unique blend of mysticism, Egyptology, Afrocentrism, and nonsense…. Sun Ra simply took … obsession a bit farther than most." A Publishers Weekly contributor remarked of the book: "Convincingly, Szwed finds method in this madness, juxtaposing Sun Ra's career and thoughts with the developing civil rights movement."
Szwed has also tackled a book about a more popular jazz great, Miles Davis. So What is intended for readers who already have a firm grasp of jazz music. It takes a close look at how Davis's art evolved over time, paralleling this with popular music of the time, as well. In the School Library Journal, Ted Westervel asserted that "the volume does deliver on what it sets out to do." Jazz 101 was praised by Ted Leventhal in Booklist as "a manageable treatise" that is accessible to most readers.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Anthropologist, September, 1985, Joyce Hendrixson, review of After Africa: Extracts from British Travel Accounts and Journals of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries concerning the Slaves, Their Manners, and Customs in the British West Indies, pp. 708-710.
American Music, summer, 1998, Krin Gabbard, review of Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, pp. 232-234.
Biography, March 22, 2003, Adam Shatz, review of So What: The Life of Miles Davis, p. 355.
Booklist, August, 2000, Ted Leventhal, review of Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz, p. 2094; November 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of So What, p. 561.
Contemporary Sociology, July, 1972, Linvill Watson, review of Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, pp. 357-358.
Hispanic American Historical Review, May, 1984, Richard Price, review of After Africa, pp. 368-369.
Independent, November 30, 2002, Brian Morton, review of So What.
Journal of American Folklore, October, 1971, Rayna Green, review of Black America, pp. 455-458; April-June, 1972, Munro S. Edmonson, review of Afro-American Anthropology, pp. 189-191.
Journal of Negro History, January, 1972, Daniel F. McCall, review of Afro-American Anthropology, pp. 49-52.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1970, review of Black America, p. 501; September 1, 2002, review of So What, p. 1291.
Latin American Research Review, spring, 1989, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, "The Lost Continent of the Americas: Recent Works on Afro-America and the Caribbean," pp. 246-252.
Library Journal, August, 1970, Frank A. Burdick, review of Black America, p. 2706; December 15, 1978, Deborah C. Masters, review of Afro-American Folk Culture, pp. 2506-2507; October 15, 2002, William G. Kenz, review of So What, p. 75.
Man, September, 1986, John C. Messenger, review of After Africa, p. 555.
New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1997, Brent Staples, "Music of the Spheres," p. 9.
Publishers Weekly, June 30, 1997, review of Space Is the Place, p. 61; September 23, 2002, review of So What, p. 60.
Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, spring, 1979, Peter White, review of Folksongs and Their Makers, p. 89.
School Library Journal, April, 2003, Ted Westervelt, review of So What, p. 197.
Washington Post, August 10, 2000, Jonathan Yardley, "Welcome to Jazzland," p. C2.
CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/ (November 11, 2002), Troy Patterson, "Review: Life of Miles Davis Rings True."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (August 11, 1997), Stephanie Zacharek, review of Space Is the Place.
Yale University Department of Anthropology Web site,http://www.yale.edu/anthro/ (March 27, 2007), brief biography of John F. Szwed.