Brent Hayes Edwards is “that rare academic whose work demands attention outside of experts in the field, without sacrificing tone or complexity,” the Nation noted in a review of Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2017).

The book’s title nods to Thelonious Monk’s 1941 composition “Epistrophy,” itself in turn a reference to epistrophe, a rhetorical device in which the same words are repeated at the end of successive phrases for emphasis and rhythm. Epistrophies takes that heuristic (a musical composition finding a structural model in literary form) as a starting point for a probing critical meditation on the relationship between jazz and literature, a subject which has long occupied Edwards, a wide-ranging and accomplished scholar known for his interdisciplinary writing on African diasporic literature, music, black intellectual history, interwar Paris, cultural theory, experimental poetics, and translation studies.

Edwards is also the author of The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Harvard, 2003), which studies the links between intellectuals in New York and their Francophone counterparts in Paris during the Harlem Renaissance and the early years of Négritude. The book was awarded the John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Society for French Historical Studies, and named a runner-up for the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association. Other recent projects include editing a scholarly edition of Amiable with Big Teeth (Penguin Classics, 2017), a long-lost novel by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay; and translating a new edition of Michel Leiris’s 1934 classic of “surrealist ethnography,” Phantom Africa (Seagull Books, 2017), for which he was awarded a 2012 PEN/Heim Translation Grant.

Edwards was born in Chicago and grew up in Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, Belgium, and Washington, D.C. He earned a B.A. in Literature from Yale and a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia. He taught at Rutgers before returning to Columbia in 2007 to take up his current position as Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

 Edwards is at work on three different projects. “Black Radicalism and the Archive” considers the collecting activities of black artists and intellectuals including Arturo Schomburg, Hubert Harrison, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Alexander Gumby, and C. L. R. James. Edwards describes the book, an early version of which he presented as Du Bois Lectures at Harvard in 2015, as an exploration of the larger question of “what it means to consider archival practice – a commitment to historical documentation and preservation – as an integral element of political radicalism.”

 Edwards is also working on a book-length cultural history of the downtown New York “loft jazz” scene in New York in the 1970s, when musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Sam Rivers opened their own performance spaces in SoHo. And finally, he is writing a study called “Art of the Lecture,” a book project he began during his tenure as a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow.

 Edwards began his career in the dance world, and from 1992 to 1996 he co-directed, choreographed, and danced in the collaborative company 8 Lives Dance Collective, which performed at Jacob’s Pillow and the Merce Cunningham Studio, among other venues. He currently resides in Harlem with his family.




Photo of Brent Hayes Edwards