John Szwed

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John Szwed (born 1936) is Professor of Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University, and Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. He was John M. Musser Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of many books on jazz and American music, including studies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Alan Lomax and Billie Holiday.


Szwed gained his Ph.D. in anthropology from Ohio State University; his work as an anthropologist and folklorist includes field studies in Newfoundland, the Georgia Sea Islands, and Trinidad.[1] As a musician, Szwed studied trombone, music theory, and played professionally for twelve years. He has taught at New York University, the University of Pennsylvania (where he was Director of the Center for Urban Ethnography and Chair of the Department of Folklore).[1] From 1982 to 2008, Szwed was John M. Musser Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University.[2] Szwed was appointed Professor of music and Jazz studies at Columbia University in 2008. In 2011, he was appointed Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia.[2]


In 2000, Szwed published a study of Sun Ra, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.[3] In 2003, he published a Miles Davis biography, So What: The Life of Miles Davis.[4][5] Szwed wrote Doctor Jazz, a booklet about Jelly Roll Morton for the 2005 issue of The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax on Rounder Records. The booklet won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes.[6] In 2010, Szwed published a biography of Alan Lomax, the folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and field collector of folk music of the 20th century, entitled The Man Who Recorded the World.[7][8]

In 2015, Szwed published Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, which analyses the art of Billie Holiday's singing and the construction of her life as a mythic paradigm of African American suffering. Szwed argues that Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, is a generally accurate account of Holiday's life, and that Holiday's co-writer, William Dufty, was forced to water down or suppress material by the threat of legal action. The New Yorker reviewer Richard Brody writes: "In particular, Szwed traces the stories of two important relationships that are missing from the book—with Charles Laughton, in the nineteen-thirties, and with Tallulah Bankhead, in the late nineteen-forties—and of one relationship that’s sharply diminished in the book, her affair with Orson Welles around the time of Citizen Kane."[9]



  1. ^ a b "Participant Biographies, The American Folklife Center". The Library of Congress. Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "The center for jazz studies at Columbia University". Retrieved 19 August 2011. 
  3. ^ Wuethrich, Matthew (January 24, 2003). "Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra". Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  4. ^ Isler, Tom. "Birth of the Coolest". Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  5. ^ Morton, Brian (November 30, 2002). "So what: the life of Miles Davis". Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Best Album Notes, 2005". Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  7. ^ Smith, Wendy (January 16, 2011). "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  8. ^ Maslin, Janet (January 30, 2011). "Singing the Perfectionist-Folkie Blues". The New York Times. Retrieved August 19, 2011. 
  9. ^ Brody, Richard (April 3, 2015). "The Art of Billie Holiday's Life". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 6, 2015. 

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