Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


DANCE, Helen Oakley

(b Helen Margaret Oakley, 15 February 1913, Toronto, Ontario; d 27 May 2001, Escondo CA) Journalist and publicist for jazz, record producer and life-long spark plug for the music she loved. From a socially prominent family (her grandfather had founded the Simpson Knitting Mills in 1865), her upbringing included a finishing school in Switzerland. She and her sister Cynthia were presented as debutantes to Toronto society in the 1932-33 season, leading to a visit to London, where she attended Duke Ellington's legendary British debut at the Palladium. Already a committed jazz fan, she renewed her acquaintance with Ellington at the Fox Theater in Detroit, where she relocated (with her family's blessing) to try to become a jazz singer.

Moving again to Chicago in 1934, she became a freelance journalist, encouraging the early Down Beat to become a jazz-oriented mag; she produced her first recording sessions, for Okeh, with Jabbo Smith, Israel Crosby, Jess Stacy and others; and became a co-founder of the Chicago Rhythm Club with Squirrel Ashcraft. (Monday evening musical soirées at Squirrel's home kept the flame flickering during the Depression and well into the 1950s: Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III [1905-1981] was a prosperous lawyer and amateur pianist in Evanston who became a close friend and benefactor of many musicians, a legend in the Chicago area; he later worked for the CIA.) Helen and Squirrel began promoting Sunday afternoon concerts in the Union Room at Chicago's Congress Hotel, and there they made history: a Benny Goodman event is often described as the first jazz concert, for listening rather than dancing, and got quite a lot of press, including Time magazine.

The Benny Goodman Trio, with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa, had already recorded for RCA Victor in New York in July 1935; this was probably John Hammond's doing, Wilson allowed to record with Goodman in exchange for a Goodman appearance on a Wilson session for Brunswick, but the racially integrated trio had not appeared in public. For Easter Sunday in 1936 Helen talked Goodman into presenting the trio at a concert, wiring Wilson the fare from New York to Chicago, for what is thought to have been the first public performance by an integrated group. (Helen later said that it wouldn't have been possible without the cooperation of the hotel manager, whose name was Kaufman.) The trio was a sensation, and immediately had two more recording sessions in April in Chicago.

The Duke Ellington band also played at one of the Sunday concerts, and Helen met Irving Mills, music publisher and Ellington's manager. He had begun as a promoter for his brother Jack's publishing firm, Mills Music, and from 1928 had made records as Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang, a pick-up band that variously included musicians who later became world famous, such as Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He now had plans to expand, and talked Helen into coming to New York, where he formed Master and Variety, respectively full-price and budget record labels. Helen assisted with all the paperwork and legal details (Mills probably couldn't believe his luck) and began producing recordings; the full Ellington band recorded for Master, while she was in charge of Variety, where she produced scores of records from '37 by many different artists, but especially small-group sessions by Ellingtonians: Ellington was happy to see his men (Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart) getting their names on the labels of their own records, and after all, as Helen said, 'Where are you ever gonna hear enough Johnny Hodges?'

Mills of course wanted to make hits with songs, especially of the ones he was publishing, and many years later, in the early 1990s, when Helen wrote the notes for the two-CD sets of reissues, The Duke's Men, she was acerbic about some of the 'spiritless' vocals by girl singers, but every record had something beautiful on it, and a great many were completely masterpieces: 'Jeep's Blues', 'Hodge Podge', 'Frolic Sam', 'Rexatious', too many to list here. Mills was in too big a hurry, trying to expand overseas when his venture was still new and the Depression was still on; new record labels had a lot of work to do and investment to be made in distribution and other areas, and needed a few big names to sell the brand; the labels themselves soon went broke. There were only about 40 Master releases and about 170 on Variety. But meanwhile Mills had made a deal with Herbert Yates, who controlled the American Record Company (as well as Consolidated Film: Republic and Monogram Pictures, including Gene Autry etc). So Helen continued making records in the brand-new Master Records Inc. studios on Broadway, many of them appearing on Yates's Brunswick and Vocalion labels, and other Master and Variety numbers also reissued there. In the next couple of years some forgettable stuff was recorded –  Helen had already encountered Charlie Weintraub, the accountant at Master, the sort of bean-counter who was not interested in the music but only the bottom line – but scores of the best jazz artists were also, virtually preserving a contemporary picture of the New York City scene.

Meanwhile, until 1942 Helen continued her freelancing as a promoter and producer. She helped to organize the legendary Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert in January 1938, and John Hammond's 'From Sprituals to Swing' concerts in December 1938 and December 1939. She worked with Red Norvo and his then wife Mildred Bailey, the Bob Crosby band (where she was credited with helping to create another wonderful small group, the Bob Cats), and Chick Webb and Chick's young vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Her friends included Hammond, Billie Holiday, Irene Kitchings (musician, songwriter, Teddy Wilson's first wife), Mary Lou Williams, jazz historian Marshall Stearns, and many, many others. There had been 'battles of the bands' for years, but Helen was one of the first to promote them, especially with Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom, including the most famous one, between Webb and Count Basie when Basie arrived in New York in 1938. After Webb's untimely death, she worked briefly for Joe Glaser, who was Louis Armstrong's manager. She continued to contribute journalism to Tempo, Swing, and Jazz Hot, as well as Down Beat. 

After her brother Rupert (a close friend of her future husband, Stanley Dance) was killed in the disastrous raid on Dieppe in August 1942, Helen joined the Women's Army Corps (while her sister volunteered for the Canadian equivalent). With her international background, she was assigned to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA), assisting in the disposition of undercover operatives in occupied countries, and was reunited with her sister, Captain Cynthia Oakley, in Rome in 1943.

She had hosted fellow jazz chronicler and Ellington enthusiast Dance when he first visited New York from England in 1937. Nearly ten years later while she was re-establishing herself in New York, he made the arduous flight to see her, and they were married on January 30, 1947, in Braintree, Essex, England. They lived in a 15th century house called Cottesmore, adjoining the Dance family home, where four children were born. Reunions were held there with many old friends, including Ellington, who played in a room thenceforth known as the Ellington room. They worked together, continuing their music journalism, and relocated to her father's properties in Rowayton, Connecticut in 1959, about an hour from Manhattan, the better to do so.

In the 1960s Helen became active in the civil rights movement, founding the Catholic Interracial Council and Human Relations Commission in southwestern Connecticut, and serving as editor of Dialog, a diocesan publication committed to social and interracial justice. In 1979 the Dances moved to California. Already in the 1940s Helen had begun befriending bluesmen; she first interviewed Aaron 'T-Bone' Walker in 1971, and published Stormy Monday: the T-Bone Walker Story with the Louisiana State University Press in 1987. Subsequently published by Da Capo, the book was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001 at the Blues Foundation’s annual gala in Memphis, Tennessee just before she died.

She also reviewed books. About Wishing On The Moon in 1994, she wrote in JazzTimes, 'We shall probably have to wait a long time for another life of Billie Holiday to supercede Donald Clarke's achievement.' All the while she and Stanley were collaborating on other valuable work. She and Stanley were both interviewed on film by Hamilton College and by Ken Burns, and donated an archive of their papers to Yale University.