Obituary: Stanley Dance

Steve Voce
Tuesday 02 March 1999 00:02

IT IS a testimony to their ability to write well and to communicate lucidly that Leonard Feather and Stanley Dance, both British writers, were able to move to the United States and rise to the top of the heap as experts on jazz, a completely American art.

The textbooks say that Dance went to live in Connecticut in 1937. He found this suggestion offensive: he had stayed in England throughout the Second World War. Total deafness in one ear precluded him from army service and he worked in his father's tobacco business until, inheriting the company himself, he sold up and went to live in the US in 1959.

Only Feather ever made a living out of jazz journalism. Dance needed the financial cushion that he got from selling up his father's firm when he left. The move was prompted too because his Canadian-born wife, Helen Oakley, a jazz authority and record producer in her own right, didn't like the English climate. Oakley had organised concerts for Benny Goodman and had recorded small jazz groups, including some made up of Ellington musicians, from 1937 onwards. She and Dance married while she was in England with the Office of Strategic Services during the war.

In 1958 Sir Edward Lewis, the chairman of the Decca Record Company, had sent Dance to New York to make a series of albums by outstanding jazz musicians who Dance felt had been under-recorded. It was no coincidence that they were all black for, although he never spoke of the matter or engaged in racial politics, Dance felt that black players made superior music to their white counterparts. On one occasion he wrote that Ruby Braff was the best of the white trumpet players. "Why did he have to say that I was white?" Braff wondered.

The Decca albums, issued on the Felsted label, became classics and with them Dance established a new jazz context that he called Mainstream. The categorisation caught on because it was useful. Dance defined it:

Primarily it is a reference term for the vast body of jazz that was at one time in some danger of losing its identity. Practically it is applied to the jazz idiom which developed between the heyday of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton on the one hand and that of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on the other.

In fact Dance regarded Swing as the purlieu of white musicians like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Mainstream was to encompass the work of black musicians including Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and Buck Clayton. The music and its roots were similar.

The unspoken reverse discrimination on grounds of colour was hard to reconcile. Although Dance's actions helped to bring them new prosperity, the subjects of his new category were not impressed and some felt that he was being patronising.

Dance's interest in jazz had begun when he was a pupil at Framlingham College in Suffolk from 1925 to 1928. The progressive jazz records that he heard in this period included the first made by the pianists Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. Dance was later to become close to both of them. He wrote his first essays in the French magazine Jazz Hot in 1935 because "so much of what I read about jazz was so ill-informed and so bad" and over the next two decades until he left for the US continued to write, often for collectors' magazines, when his work in the tobacco industry allowed.

Dance's writings continued to appear copiously until his death. Over the years he was one of the most influential of authors who, through his friendship with Ellington, Hines, Count Basie and others, became more involved with the music than any other non-instrumentalist. His chronicles made him one of the leading jazz historians and he had a hand in shaping the direction taken by the music that he loved.

In 1970 Duke Ellington wrote:

Stanley is well informed about my activities and those of my associates. He has been a part of our scene for a long time, maybe longer than he cares to remember. He and his wife Helen are the kind of people it is good to have in your corner, the kind of people you don't mind knowing your secrets. In other words they are friends - and you don't have to be careful with friends.

Dance contributed a monthly column, "Lightly and Politely", to the British magazine Jazz Journal from 1948 to 1976. In it he used the royal "we". As his fellow columnist I found this an irritating flaw in such a stylish writer and I tackled him about it on a couple of occasions. He explained only that it lubricated the flow of his prose.

The so-called Bebop Revolution of the mid-Forties was perhaps not the cataclysmic change that critics like Dance made it out to be. It mostly concerned the speeding up of musical thought; the apparent changes in the music were not as radical as they at first appeared. But they were more than enough for Dance, who pulled the blinds down at the appearance on the scene of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and, as far as developments in the music were concerned, kept them down ever after. Additionally, since the best players of the Twenties had been black, Dance believed that this would always be the case.

In 1957 the bandleader Johnny Dankworth created an incident when, appalled by the showmanship and general hysteria of Lionel Hampton at a Royal Festival Hall concert, he shouted from his seat in the audience, "How about playing some jazz?" Dance's support in Jazz Journal of the black Hampton gave him the chance to clobber a white modernist in passing. He wrote:

What we would like to know is whether Dankworth attended the [Stan] Kenton concert. If he did was he heard to bawl the same question? If not, why not? We sat through the Kenton concert indignant and incredulous without bawling once, because we knew that in the audience there were several hundred jackasses who had come long distances to hear the noise.

Kenton's music had far more depth and cerebral activity than the direct and raw passion of Hampton's, and hindsight suggests that Dance's assessment was diametrically wrong. However, a paragraph from him in the current edition of Jazz Times suggests that it never changed:

I liked Stan Kenton personally, but invariably found his music too grandiose and heavy to swing. It was no surprise when he made a Wagner album. Teutonic ambitions having cost me friends and relatives in two world wars, I was doubly prejudiced against such contra-jazz ventures.

Later, when Dance travelled with Duke Ellington, closer to him than anyone else as he helped him with day-to-day matters and wrote continuously about the band's activities, the trumpeter Buck Clayton said to me, "Every time that Duke wanted a pee, Stanley was there to unzip his fly for him."

In 1964, when Earl Hines's career was at a low ebb, Dance persuaded some promoters to support three concerts by the pianist at the Little Theatre in New York. They were sensationally successful and as a result Hines, with Dance's support, resumed his rightful place at the head of the jazz pantheon. "I always say I'm an amateur manager," said Dance, but his guidance of Hines and Ellington was faultless. He was largely responsible for the surge of recordings by the two men, and contributed informed and enlightening notes to their albums. He had already won a Grammy Award in 1963 for his liner notes to the record set The Ellington Era.

His output of articles and books was breathtaking in size. Already a contributor to Down Beat, Metronome, the New York Herald Tribune and Saturday Review, he began to collect together his pieces in books such as The World of Duke Ellington (1970), The World of Swing (1974), The World of Earl Hines (1977), The World of Count Basie (1980), The Night People (1971, about the jazz trombonist Dicky Wells), and Those Swinging Years (the autobiography of Charlie Burnett, which Dance helped to write, 1984). He won the Ascap-Deems Taylor Award in 1979 for his book Duke Ellington in Person: an intimate memoir, on which he had collaborated with Ellington's son Mercer. He had probably also been responsible for writing Duke Ellington's autobiography Music is My Mistress.

He wrote for the American Jazz Times from 1980 until his death, being in charge of the book review section. Many of the reviews were his own and because he was so well-informed, and because his writing style remained so vivid, it was not possible to detect any deterioration in his skills. He was as eloquent as ever when he joined me for a BBC North radio programme last year. His love of his music and his insights into it shone through: he would have been an excellent broadcaster, had he turned his mind to it.

"When you get somebody like Stanley in your corner," said Earl Hines, "you're a very lucky fellow."

Steve Voce

Stanley Frank Dance, writer and record producer: born Braintree, Essex 15 September 1910; married 1947 Helen Oakley (two sons, two daughters); died Rancho Bernardo, California 23 February 1999.

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