Helen Oakley Dance: The Dances of Bittersweet Hill

Helen Oakley Dance was a pioneering record collector, jazz writer, producer and promoter. During the 1930s, she promoted the first jazz “concert”, where pop music was first played to listen to rather than as a reason to dance, and the first multiracial jazz band. For her, promoting black musicians was a way of promoting civil rights. In an age of Beyoncé and the Grammys, of Black Lives Matter, of Kanye and Trump, her story, of music and equality, of Jim Crow and the rise of fascism, deserves to be more widely known.

By the time she spoke to Mark Tucker from the Yale Oral History of American Music project, Helen Oakley Dance’s memory was not as sharp as it once was, and she sometimes stumbled over her words. It was 1987, and she couldn’t remember exactly which song Duke Ellington had been playing when she cried, standing at the side of the stage, one evening in the 1930s. She began to talk about the musicians she had known back in Chicago, and became a little lost: “I used to write about Jess when he was playing in the cellar, and playing… getting off at eight a.m. in the morning, and nobody knew about him. And, also, there was a… the Chicago Rhythm Kings, or… My memory is poor, Mark.”

“It's the thing when you don’t refer back to these same sets of things,” she said, “the names that you know very well escape you.” She called over to her husband, Stanley, whom she called Stanny. “We might need Stanny for some dates and some names, because…” Stanley, like Helen, was a respected jazz writer, particularly about Ellington. He’d first become well known in his native England, and had delivered the eulogy at Ellington’s funeral, but he deferred to Helen as the true pioneer, as a writer, producer, promoter, record collector, and civil rights activist: she “was there first”, he said, if people asked.

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