Stearns played drums in his teens, and attended Harvard University both for undergraduate and for law school (1929?-1934). Following this he studied medieval English at Yale University, where he took his Ph.D. in 1942. Stearns taught English at several U.S. colleges, and during this time wrote often about jazz music for magazines such as Variety, Saturday Review, Down Beat, Record Changer, Esquire, Harper's, Life, and Musical America. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, and used the proceeds to finish his 1956 work The Story of Jazz, which became a widely used text, as well as a popular introduction to jazz. He began teaching jazz at New York University in 1950 and then at Hunter College from 1951. In 1952, he founded the Institute of Jazz Studies, which he directed. Later in the 1950s, he was a consultant to the United States State Department, and accompanied Dizzy Gillespie on a tour of the Middle East in 1956 sponsored by the office. He taught at the New School for Social Research (1954–56) and the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts.
He and his second wife, Jean, wrote a second book, Jazz Dance, which was published posthumously in 1968.
- "The Marshall Winslow Stearns Collection" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-02-03.
Marshall Winslow Stearns was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Harry N. and Edith Stearns on October 18, 1908. ...
- Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1956.
- Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz, New York: New American Library/Mentor Books, 1958.
- Marshall Winslow Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, Da Capo Press, 1968, ISBN 0306805537.