John F. Szwed

John M. Musser Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies

John Szwed, B.S. Marietta College, B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D. Ohio State University, faculty member at Yale since 1982: Fieldworker, scholar, commentator, performer, and critic, you have cross-fertilized anthropology, folklore, and performance studies with stunning insights and passionate conviction. The sounds of the vernacular, the poetics of performance, and the rhythms of everyday life come alive in the pages of your pitch-perfect prose and the memorable riffs of your mind-bending lectures and conversations.

Respectful of disciplinary traditions, mindful of conventional scholarship, but gleefully heedless of boundaries of inquiry, you conjoin anthropology and folklore and cross all the genres of expressive cultural forms—speech, music, dance, and film. The bass line of your scholarly compositions is always that the most creative individual performer must have an inspiring community; that the traditional is the ground for the avant-garde; that all aesthetic performances have social context and political import; and that African American vernaculars are vibrant autonomous accomplishments and essential elements of the American fabric.

Your field studies of folklore, folk life, and vernacular expressive cultures have stretched from Newfoundland to Trinidad and many places, urban and rural, in between. In a dozen books you have defined several fields and set new standards in others—for urban ethnography, Black English, African American studies, the cultural politics of folklore, and an anthropology of sound! You have been a professional musician on the bass and trombone, and for over 25 years you were wrote for the Village Voice on music, dance, and performance. Your books on Miles Davis, on Sun Ra, and on Jelly Roll Morton have been rich portraits of brilliant musical life worlds. Your collaboration with Alan Trachtenberg in the seminar on Film Noir and your long-running courses on jazz have creolized anthropology, film studies, and music studies at Yale. You have played jazz, produced jazz, reviewed jazz, studied jazz, and you have been one of the very few academics ever to have won a Grammy Award! You have several times been the Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz Studies at Columbia University, surely the swingingest of academic gigs! We treasure you as an erudite, ebullient, and electrifying colleague, as an academic shape-changer, and as a witty raconteur, with a memory for everything, a story for everyone, and an appetite for anything.

Tribute Editor: Penelope Laurans