Nez Perce jazz singer Julia Keefe was in high school when she first became acquainted with the music of swing-era vocalist Mildred Bailey (Coeur d’Alene). Today, at age 19, Keefe has developed a musical tribute to Bailey that will be performed at the National Museum of the American Indian on Saturday, April 11.
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Bailey spent her early years on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho. She later lived in Spokane, Wash., where Keefe herself attended high school, and Seattle. Eventually, Bailey moved to Los Angeles, where she sang in clubs and helped her brother Al and his friend Bing Crosby get their first L.A. gigs in the mid-1920s. When Al Bailey and Crosby joined the Paul Whiteman orchestra, they got Bailey an audition, and she became the first “girl singer” to regularly front a big band. Bailey eventually recorded with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman.
Keefe is currently pursuing a degree in jazz performance at University of Miami's Frost School of Music in Coral Gables, Fla., and in 2007 she won an outstanding vocal soloist award at the Lionel Hampton Festival in Moscow, Idaho. Her tribute to Bailey includes “Rocking Chair,” “I’ll Close My Eyes,” “Bluebirds in the Moonlight” and other tunes Bailey made popular.
In the liner notes for your new album, No More Blues, you mention listening to your mom’s jazz records. Can you talk about the recordings you heard that got you hooked?
One of my earliest memories is of this two-disc Billie Holiday “greatest hits” record. I remember my mom would play it and I was totally hooked on the song called “No More.” As a 4-year-old, I definitely didn’t understand the depth of the lyrics, and listening to it now, it’s a very haunting melody with very deep, empowering sentiments and lyrics. I remember how much I loved Billie Holiday’s style and the melody. Eventually we lost track of the recordings, and I just remembered a little bit of that melody.
So you tried to find that recording?
Yeah, and actually for Christmas this past year my dad got me the exact two-disc greatest hits album—the same cover and everything. It was a blast from the past. That [album is] what really got me into jazz, but also Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Mack the Knife,” live from Berlin. That’s what really got me into improvising. I think I was maybe 13—it was just before I was supposed to start improvising in my first jazz ensemble. My mom put on this CD and it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. Even now, I remember that recording and I’m like “Yes, this is why we do jazz.”
When did you begin singing for audiences and when did you know you wanted to make a career out of singing jazz?
In the 7th grade I started singing in a jazz choir and I had my first improvisational solo over “St. Louis Blues.” We had to perform it at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and then we had another performance at the school I was attending. I remember that I walked up and grabbed the microphone and just started singing. I had so much fun being up there improvising and performing for people and seeing their faces. I had done theater before, and I loved that feeling when I was performing, but with jazz there was even more freedom to be whoever I wanted to be—to do whatever I wanted to do.
You’ll be performing songs by swing era vocalist Mildred Bailey. What drew you to Bailey and her music? Why did you want to create a tribute to her?