Jazz Institute of Chicago

Helen Oakley Dance dies—journalist, producer, promoter, and wife of Stanley Dance

Helen Oakley Dance dies—journalist, producer, promoter, and wife of Stanley Dance
by Francis J. Dance

Helen Margaret Oakley was born on February 15, 1913 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A member of the prosperous Simpson Knitting Mills family, she was educated in her youth with her sister Cynthia by a succession of English governesses, often wintering in Nassau, the Bahamas. She attended Ovenden College, a private school in Toronto from 1926 to 1930, and then spent a year at Trinity College at the University of Toronto prior to finishing school at Les Fougeres in Lausanne, Switzerland.

She and Cynthia were presented together as debutantes to Toronto society in the 1932-1933 season, culminating in a visit to London, England where she attended Duke Ellington's premier concert at the Palladium. Always a committed jazz enthusiast, she subsequently made Ellington's acquaintance at the Fox Theater in Detroit, Michigan where she re-located with her family's blessing, to ostensibly pursue a career as a jazz singer.

She moved to Chicago in 1934, where she freelanced as a music journalist for the Herald Tribune and founded the Chicago Rhythm Club. From 1934 to 1941 she was a regular and principal contributor to the fledging Down Beat magazine.

In association with Squirrel Ashcroft, she organized Monday night performances of famed jazz performers such as Earl Hines and Billie Holiday. She produced her first recording sessions for Okeh records with performers Paul Mares and Charles Lavere. In late 1935 and 1936, she organized Sunday afternoon jazz concerts, for listening rather than for dancing, at the Congress Hotel. In this venue, she brought together the Benny Goodman Trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson, pioneering such interracial collaborations.

By 1937 she had established herself in Irving Mills' office in New York City, hosting the famed Master/Variety record label parties and producing the legendary Ellington small bands recordings with Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams. Through 1942, she served as a freelancing public relations organizer and producer, closely associated with Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey, the Bob Crosby Band, and the Chick Webb Orchestra with budding vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.

She organized many Battles of Swing, often with her mainstay, the Chick Webb Orchestra as host at the Savoy Ballroom. The New York introduction of the Kansas City-based Count Basie Orchestra occurred at such an event. She was one of the principal organizers of Benny Goodman's wildly successful 1937 concert at Carnegie Hall.

After the untimely death of Chick Webb, she joined Joe Glaser, Inc., briefly covering Louis Armstrong. Her journalistic contributions expanded to include Tempo, Swing, and Jazz Hot as well as Down Beat. Her friendships blossomed with performers Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, and Mary Lou Williams as well as writers Barry Ulanov, Maurice & Charlotte Zolotow, Marshall Stearns, George Frazier, Ned Williams and Hugues Panassie, as well as her future husband, Stanley Dance, whom she hosted during his first New York City visit in 1937.

The early 1940s brought a deeper relationship with Duke Ellington, his talented band, and his frequent recording sessions, where she was usually present for such spontaneous events as his writing of "Solitude" in just 20 minutes.

World War II brought personnel changes and rising blues popularity through her friends, Jay McShann, Joe Turner, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. With John Hammond, she promoted his "From Spirituals to Swing" concert. This period also saw the early emergence of bebop as Earl Hines hired Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Billy Eckstine.

On August 19, 1942, her brother Rupert (and close friend of Stanley Dance) died in the ill-fated attack on Dieppe, France (precursor to the more successful D-Day invasion). Helen immediately volunteered for the Women's Army Corps and was assigned to boot camp in Daytona Beach, FL, while her sister Cynthia volunteered for the Canadian equivalent.

Due to her background, Helen was assigned to the OSS (wartime predecessor of the CIA) and was assigned to Algiers, Morocco under Secret Operations officer Gerard, Marquis de Piolenc for training. She assisted in the disposition of US undercover operatives and radio technicians being sent to occupied countries.

In December 1943, she rendezvoused in the recently declared open city of Rome with her sister, now Captain Cynthia Oakley, who headed the debarkation in Italy of the first female contingent. This event was featured worldwide on Pathe news. Helen was relocated to US headquarters in Leghorn, where renegade German soldiers were trained as spies. In March 1945 she was reassigned to act as an undercover courier between Paris and Berne after Germany's surrender. These orders were quickly cancelled after President Truman's edict disbanding the OSS.

By early 1946, Helen had re-established herself in New York City, where the jazz scene had dramatically changed from big band swing to be bop through the war years. Stanley Dance made the arduous air journey to New York to see Helen, leading to their engagement and subsequent marriage on January 30, 1947 in Braintree, Essex, England.

The new bride agreed to relocate to Braintree, adjoining the Dance family home at Little Bradfords in a 15th century home called Cottesmore. Four children followed: Teresa on April 13, 1948, Rupert on October 20, 1949, Francis on October 29, 1952, and Cynthia Maria on July 2, 1958.
Stanley renewed his journalistic avocation, now with Helen's collaboration, in periodicals such as The Melody Maker, Jazz Journal, Jazz Weekly, and Le Bulletin du Jazz Hot. Ellington and Rex Stewart, amongst others, visited Cottesmore, with Ellington tickling the ivories in a room henceforth known as The Ellington Room. Reunions were held with Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Mezz Mesirow, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, while concerts of Basie and Ellington were attended in both Paris and London.

On April 3, 1954, her sister Cynthia and her husband, Rodney Adamson died in a plane crash, leading Helen back to Canada for a thwarted adoption attempt for her sister's only son, Christopher.

During these years their real income came from the family wholesale tobacco and hairdressing activities. In January 1959, these businesses were sold and the family moved to Rowayton, CT so that Helen and Stanley's jazz interests could be pursued principally in New York City and the United States. They lived in one of her father's rental properties, called Oakleigh Court, while Stanley's father allowed his son to take his legacy early from the sale of the family business.

Stanley initially pursued a role as an arranging and recording producer for Decca Records, as a result of his successful revival of swing era musicians through his Felsted recording sessions, supported by Sir Edward Lewis, president of English Decca. Over the next twenty years over 70 albums were released containing their studio contributions. The team also received writing assignments for The Saturday Review, Music Journal and Down Beat as well as countless album liner notes.

Jazz and their contributions were recognized, even at the White House as they attended state dinners with Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton. The highlight was in 1969 when President Nixon awarded Duke Ellington the Medal of Freedom, coinciding with Duke's 70th birthday celebration at a gala dinner party and concert.

In March 1964, Stanley revitalized Earl Hines' sagging career via an acclaimed three-night performance at the Little Theatre in Manhattan. Stanley subsequently was pressed into service as Earl's manager until his death in 1982, while Helen handled HICUE, the Johnny Hodges and Earl Hines music publishing company.

Stanley's writing career blossomed, winning a Grammy for best liner notes for "The Ellington Era" and five subsequent Grammy nominations, as well as the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 1979 for his collaboration with Mercer Ellington on the book "Duke Ellington in Person." A lucrative Charles Scribner's book contract saw the release of "The World of Duke Ellington", "The World of Swing", "The World of Count Basie" and "The World of Earl Hines."

Duke Ellington's autobiography, "Music is my Mistress", was organized and compiled by Stanley as he traveled on global tours as personal aide and historian to the maestro. Da Capo Press assumed the paperback rights and continues distribution of most of these books to this day. Stanley's saddest, yet ironically most famous, moment came on May 27, 1974 when he delivered Duke's eulogy at St. John the Divine Cathedral before 10,000 mourners and a global radio and television audience.

In the 1960s, Helen became active in the local and national civil rights movement, founding the Catholic Interracial Council and Human Relations Commission in southwestern Connecticut. She served as editor of DIALOG, a diocesan publication committed to social and interracial justice. Throughout these years, Helen continued her collaboration with Stanley, raised their 4 children, and conducted interviews for the Smithsonian and Rutgers. Subjects included Cootie Williams, Jonah Jones, Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey, Helen Humes, Arnett Cobb, Walter Fuller, in London, Bud Freeman and in Paris, drummer Kenny Clark.

In 1971, she interviewed Aaron "T-Bone" Walker backstage at Carnegie Hall and later in New Jersey and Canada, beginning her research on the book "Stormy Monday: the T-Bone Walker Story" published in 1987 by Louisiana State University Press and subsequently by Da Capo Press. Featuring exhaustive family interviews and many in-person interviews, it is the definitive work on this seminal blues musician. This book is now available through Lightning Press. On May 23, 2001 her book was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame at the Blues Foundation's annual gala event in Memphis, TN.

In 1978, with their children grown, Helen and Stanley relocated for the last time, to supposedly retire in Vista, California, a sleepy community ensconced between San Diego and Los Angeles. But Stanley continued as book editor for Jazz Times until 1998 and the couple made numerous Jazz Cruises as guest speakers on jazz history.

Helen wrote liner notes for a Mosaic box set on T-Bone Walker and for Yale University's issuance of previously unreleased Benny Goodman material. The Helen Oakley Dance and Stanley Dance Archive was established at Yale, becoming the domicile for their eight decades of jazz correspondence and visual/audio references.

With Mercer Ellington, more than 20 albums of Ellington's music were issued, much of it never previously released. They contributed to the production of a local San Diego publication, called Jazz Link. Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham's career, as well as those of Scott Hamilton, Duke Robillard and Roomful of Blues, were promoted and encouraged.

On February 23, 1999 Stanley died at the age of 88 as a result of complications from a broken hip. In March 2000, Helen relocated to Silverado Senior Care in Escondido, CA, nearby to her daughter, Maria. On May 27, 2001, Helen Oakley Dance peacefully passed on to her reward in the presence of all her 4 children. She was 88 years old, succumbing to complications from a heart attack and broken hip suffered on Mother's Day, May 13, 2001. She and Stanley are buried at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, CA.

She is survived by her four children, Theresa Bennink-Dance of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, Rupert S. Dance of Hopkinton, NH, Francis J. Dance of Woodbury, CT and Maria Lindley of Carlsbad, CA; two sisters, Jacqueline Hickson of New Smyrna Beach, FL and Doris Barry of Wilton, CT; brother, John Gillespie of Toronto, Canada and three grandchildren.

Copyright ©2001 by Francis J. Dance.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.


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