Sweet, smooth vocals always get my attention and I’m a sucker for a well played vocal scat – thus my ears perked up when I first heard Julia Keefe of the Nez Perce Tribe. Her voice is of another era and stands out in this one as one of the only jazz songbirds in Indian Country. But she’s not the first.
Born in 1989 in Seattle, Keefe is currently a senior studying jazz performance at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, though it’s been since grade seven that Keefe has been singing jazz. She has performed on the East and West coasts and if you’ve seen her live, you’ve noticed that she typically dedicates a song to the legendary Mildred Bailey at every performance.
Bailey was a groundbreaking and influential blues and jazz performer in the 30s and 40s, and a Coeur d’Alene tribal member. Early in her studies Keefe was drawn to Mildred’s life and work and in 2009 performed her musical tribute Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 2009. But her passion for Bailey didn’t stop there.
In Indian Country Today’s Jazz Vocalist Julia Keefe ‘Just Likes to Sing’ Keefe describes to Jack McNeel her experience visiting the Jazz Hall of Fame for the first time at New York’s Lincoln Center:
“It was beautiful and I loved it,” she said, “But I noticed there were only four women in the Jazz Hall of Fame and Mildred Bailey wasn’t one of them.” Those four are Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith and Mary Lou Williams.
She doesn’t question that those four belonged — but says she “sort of realized there was a great injustice being done. I feel without Mildred Bailey and what she did, we wouldn’t have Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. She was the one who kicked open the door and made way for those amazing vocalists to get the stature they got.”
This past winter, Julia was home in Spokane on break and was asked to do a gig at the Coeur d’Alene Casino. “It was a private event for the Idaho State Legislature and some of the tribal council,” she explained. “I brought some of my Mildred Bailey stuff and said a few words about her, the things she had done for women in jazz and Native Americans in jazz.”
“The Idaho Legislature was just completely engrossed,” Keefe says. “They were talking like they loved it. They came up afterwards and said they’d like to help any way they could. I told them I was hoping to get Mildred Bailey into the Jazz Hall of Fame.” This March, both the Idaho House and Idaho Senate passed resolutions to honor Mildred and to support and encourage induction into the Hall of Fame.
Julia Keefe put her idea into action. Her open letter to the Jazz Hall of Fame selection committee can be read at whereismildred.com and while you’re there, be sure to sign the petition!
Check out Mildred Bailey‘s swinging rendition of Georgia on My Mind:
And here, listen to (and download!) Julia Keefe‘s sweet take on the classic song:
Mildred Bailey died at the young age of 44 – her story and her songs are truly worth digging into, if you haven’t already. As for Julia Keefe, she reports on ICTMN:
“My plan for the future is just to perform as much as possible. I love it. I love singing. I love entertaining people so that’s where my life blood is, where my joy comes from. My plan is just to go out there and do it whatever way I can.”
We look forward to it.