Surrounded by her family, the doyenne of Canadian reggae music productions, promotion, and event management died on December 3, 2020 at age 64 at home after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, a severe form of brain cancer in the summer of last year. She underwent surgery but never fully recovered and had been bedridden since November 2019.
The chief executive officer of Jones and Jones Productions Limited co-founded the event management and entertainment services company with her husband, Allan Jones, in 1987. In 1993, they started Reggaebana which infused reggae music into the predominantly soca and calypso-influenced Caribana festival. Their celebration of Air Jamaica Day gradually grew into the JAMBANA One World Festival which drew as many as 45, 000 patrons and featured performances by internationally acclaimed bands, artistes and JUNO Award winners. It became the largest Jamaican event in Canada.
She was the founding chair of the reggae category of the Juno Awards and although a titan in the reggae music industry, her interests included other Caribbean and Canadian arts and culture events, theatre, philanthropy, hosting and producing a radio show, and being a television show host and producer.
Before immigrating to Canada in January 1981, Denise and Allan appeared in the 1977 pantomime “12 Million Dollar Man” directed by Easton Lee, and in 1978, “Johnny Reggae,” directed by Bobby Ghisays with her playing the lead, Princess, and Allan as Bootoo at the Ward Theatre in Kingston. It also featured Ranny Williams and Oliver Samuels.
It was there that the then Denise Oates and Allan met and eventually married in May 1980 at the University Chapel, University of the West Indies, Mona campus. Musician Grub Cooper of the Fab 5 band played Cynthia Schloss’ ‘Love Me Forever’. Easton Lee was the MC, and the couple sang at their wedding.
Denise was also one of the leads in Wipe That Smile From Your Face, a play written by Kay Osborne in 1978.
“As a student, she used to perform in the hotels in the Port Antonio circuit with the Neville Black dancers so it’s a long time that she’s been involved in the arts,” says Allan who highlighted her love of Kumina drumming.
They initially lived in Sudbury where they started Afro-Caribbean Day and eventually moved to Scarborough and then to Brampton.
In 1989, Denise was the host of “Caribbean Swing” on CIUT FM, the University of Toronto with Allan doing the technical work, and their sons Jesse and Jerimi wrapped in blankets under the broadcast booth. Miss Lou was the first guest on the show and the couple also produced “Caribbean Calling” and sent the recording to Irie FM, Jamaica’s reggae radio station, for broadcast. The show opened with “Canada Calling” by The Sattalites and gave an update of things happening here.
The news of her death has resulted in an outpouring of tributes that has left Jesse in wonderment but he says it’s “a beautiful thing and it helps.”
“I’m in awe of her. I feel blessed to have had that kind of example,” he says, noting that, “Mom was the rock. It’s a tough time.”
Karl Hale, founder, and co-chair of Helping Hands Jamaica Foundation, says Jones was a founding member and driving force behind it.
“Her enthusiasm, energy, ethics and love for Jamaica and its people were unmatched. She inspired and helped thousands of children in Jamaica get a better education. Building 22 schools is part of her legacy, but her family was her calling. She was a loving and dedicated mother, wife and friend. Denise was and will stay with us as an example of giving and caring. She’ll be missed but HHJF will carry on her legacy," says Hale.
Yvette Blackburn, the Canadian representative of the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council, says her philanthropic endeavours aided many and merged complimenting interests to better the lives of others here in Canada and Jamaica.
“Denise was a proud Jamaican who never forgot her homeland by embedding a piece of the rock in all that she did and said.”
Pamela Appelt, a retired citizenship judge, says the “cultural mosaic of Canada has benefitted from the creativity of Denise.”
“There are so many community organizations that will remember the energy exuded when she was the MC of the various events. How can I forget the passing of Miss Lou when she worked with the team that was put together for the church service. Yes, she was Jamaican-born but she embraced her chosen country. She used her platform as a member of the Board of Trade for Brampton and gave her community more visibility as contributing members of the city.”
In a joint-statement, Appelt and Joe Halstead, who were the Jamaica 50 co-chairs, said, “the Jamaican community has lost an icon in our performing arts.” “Denise’s outstanding contribution to the entertainment industry in Ontario has been long admired and recognized. Her passion for showcasing the Jamaican culture through the promotion and production of events highlighting Jamaican-born artists from Canada and Jamaica is well known. “We are particularly grateful for her contribution to the roster of successful events celebrating Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence in 2012 when she developed the vision and execution of, “Jamaican Rhythms,” a “rocumentary” highlighting the best of the past five decades of reggae music held at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. We will be forever grateful for Denise’s dedication and passion.” Meanwhile, Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport, says she had “always been impressed with Denise’s commitment to promoting Jamaica and its culture, and the passion she displayed throughout all her endeavours to “get it right” and to make people enjoy themselves.”
“Whether you are a Jamaican or non-Jamaican, her passing will certainly leave a void in the Jamaican community, not only in the area of entertainment and events, but also community involvement.”
Grange noted that Jones has promoted and managed a number of reggae artists such Exco Levi, a five-time Juno Award winner, and Leroy Gibbons, to name a few.
“Denise was instrumental in planning the 1st Diaspora Day which is now celebrated June 16 annually,” she said.
“Her community involvement allowed her the opportunity to lend support to a number of initiatives across the Jamaican Diaspora in Canada as well as in Jamaica.”
Elaine Thompson, co-host of the talk show “Grapevine” at G98.7 FM and community advocate, met Jones in the late 1980s when she started in radio broadcasting.
“Denise Jones was the kind of woman who danced to her own beat. She would make you laugh as much as she would make you think. She commanded respect and admiration from all who met her, whether in a business, social or academic setting. She was extraordinary at precision and execution once she decided on a project. She would engage with the toughest and the best of them in the entertainment world.”
Thompson says she had “a great deal of admiration for her ability to get things done, despite her detractors.”
Speaking on the show on December 6, lawyer and founder of the Bob Marley Day Awards, Courtney Betty, remembered Jones and the late reggae promoter Lance Ingleton of LIP Entertainment working together with him years ago in a hurricane relief effort for Jamaica.
Describing Jones as “a pioneer, an innovator and an icon,” educator and former radio show host, Luther Brown, said she was a “woman who knew that it could be done, and did it.”
He met her when he wrote for Contrast newspaper and they developed a friendship.
“She was fearless in breaking new ground, raising the bar and taking chances. Her work made our lives more joyful. Denise was unafraid to meet with anyone, regardless of office held, or power position, to advance Jamaican culture here in Toronto and across Canada. She was a champion of home-grown artists. There were no concerts that she was involved in where Canadian artists did not play a part.”
Brown said Jones “pioneered reggae becoming a recognized category of the Junos” and that her religious beliefs and faith – she was Seventh-day Adventist -- guided her every step.
Jones is credited for establishing reggae as a force in Canadian music and for introducing Canadians to the diversity of Jamaican music.
Graeme Mathieson, a filmmaker, says Jones was “a true supporter, champion and leader of reggae music and culture in the GTA.”
“It’s been a few years since we wrapped our 15-year radio show on CHRY (StolenSouls), but from the beginning, she always linked us with on-air giveaways to her shows, blessed us with complimentary passes, and was always a quick email or call away for any requests we had, small or large. And never once did our little show ever have to go searching for her events - every week rolling up to our show, either her event flyers, passes or giveaways were already in our show’s mailbox before we even knew about said events.”
Pat Campbell, a long-time friend, said Jones blazed a trail and was “an icon, a visionary, passionate, dynamic, and caring person who was always encouraging and challenging you to set your sights higher while mentoring you to achieve success.”
“She was hardworking and well respected throughout the music and entertainment industry and was a remarkable leader in the community never backing down from a challenge. She has set a pace for others to emulate. We have lost a force; her legacy will continue.”
Exco Levi, who has been nominated seven times for a Juno Award and won five times, describes his manager as “a strong supporter of the Black community.”
Her involvement in media includes being the producer and co-host of the one-hour program, “Talk To Me” on CHIN 100.7FM on Saturday nights. Its six-episode roundtable talk show debuted in March 2017 on Rogers TV with Denise, Clifton Joseph, Teresa “Sweet T” Castellucci and Kayla Thompson.
Denise earned gold from Universal Records for marketing Bob Marley in Canada and was named among The Toronto Star's "People with Clout in the Entertainment Industry." In 1998, she received an African Canadian Achievement Award for her work in the entertainment industry, and the Pioneer Award “for her groundbreaking work developing and promoting Canadian music” by the Urban Music Association of Canada. In 2014, the association honoured her with the Lifetime Achievement Award and that same year she was the recipient of the Harry Jerome Award for entertainment. She also won a Juno Award in 1997 for promoting Canadian artists and music. In 2018, she was honoured by 100 Accomplished Black Canadian (ABC) Women for her achievements.
She was also the vice president of education and marketing for the Canadian Society of Professional Event Planners and a member of the Brampton Board of Trade where she served on its board of directors for two terms. Last winter, she taught the course “Concert & Festival Management” at Ryerson University which was to continue into other semesters. In 2018, Denise was appointed to the advisory committee of the TD Downtown Jazz Festival and was a member of the Black Business and Professional Association.
Denise Jones is survived by husband Allan, son Jesse, who assumed her business responsibilities, and son Jerimi, who looked after her healthcare needs, mother Louise, brother Gary Oates, and sisters Devan Oates-Fraser and Angela Oates-Moses. Funeral details are being finalized.