Julia Keefe’s Jazz

The young musician discusses the joys of improvisation and her new tribute to fellow American Indian artist Mildred Bailey

Keefe's tribute to Bailey includes “Rocking Chair,” “I’ll Close My Eyes” and “Bluebirds in the Moonlight.” (Don Hamilton)

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I was turned on to Mildred Bailey when I was in high school, and I thought “Everybody in Spokane knows about Bing Crosby, and that Bing Crosby went to my high school.” It was interesting to know that there was a female jazz singer from my area, so I started doing more research and found out that she was also Native American—another really cool thing. You think jazz and you don’t think Native American musicians. So to find someone who was one of the first female vocalists in front of a big band who’s Native American and from my hometown—I thought that was fascinating.

You’re calling the tribute “Thoroughly Modern.” Why?

I heard that her nickname was Millie and I was a musical theater major before I switched over to jazz and everyone was like “Ah! ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’!” When I decided to do a tribute to Mildred Bailey, I also wanted to pay homage to my musical theater background. But also, Mildred was definitely a modern female vocalist for her time. Someone did an interview with Mildred and said “Describe your style,” and she had the greatest answer: “Well, I didn’t have sheet music back then, it wasn’t easy to get a hold of sheet music, so I had to memorize the melodies off of recordings, and if I couldn’t remember the melody just right, I would make my own alterations to whatever felt comfortable for me and my voice. I could be totally wrong, but all of the guys really liked it and then I found out later that’s what they were calling swing.”

What would you say about your technique is similar to Bailey’s? What have you learned from her?

I am very different vocally than Mildred Bailey, because she sings in the higher register and she has much more vibrato, which was typical for that time period. When I listen to her recordings, I do like what she does melodically. She did some really cool changes and a lot of time she would just speak the lyrics. She has this no-nonsense delivery. I think I learned the most from her about delivery and being able to make the song your own.

You spent your grade school years in Kamiah, Idaho, on the Nez Perce reservation. Bailey also spent part of her life on her tribe’s reservation in Idaho. Do you see any parallels between your life and Bailey’s?

Yes, totally. She was born in Tekoa, Wash., and few years later moved over to the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation. I was born in Seattle, and then moved to Washington, D.C., but after living in D.C. for a little bit, I moved to Kamiah. It’s kind of creepy, the similarities, because she spent a lot of her childhood on the reservation—I spend a lot of my childhood on the reservation. When she was 12, she moved to Spokane. It was just before my 13th birthday when I moved to Spokane. She left Spokane when she was 17 and I left when I was 18.

In those early years, did you encounter much jazz on the reservation?

No. Aside from occasionally hearing it on the radio and some of those CDs, not a whole lot. I started singing on the reservation, but I was singing the National Anthem and doing that sort of thing.

Have you gone back and performed there?


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