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 have—I went back in the summer of 2007 to do a benefit concert for the [Northwest Native American] Basketweavers Association. A lot of the elders from my tribe, a lot of my relatives had never seen me perform jazz—the last time they heard me sing was when I was 8 and had a speech impediment. It was a really great experience.

Obviously you claim your identity as a Native American. What do you know about whether Bailey was open about it during that time period? You read some of her biographies and it says nothing about her being Native.

I took a jazz history course this year and Mildred Bailey was in [the book]—there was only a short paragraph about her, which is a crime. It said that she was the first white female vocalist who performed. And I was like, “That is wrong!” I don’t think she was very open about her early years, because she left at such a young age and never came back. Her mother passed away when she was young…I don’t think she really wanted to talk about where she came from. People would see her and say that she was white, but then they would hear her and say, “No white woman can sing like that, she has to be black.”

Have you met other Native American jazz musicians?

Not a whole lot, but I am hearing about more and more. There’s the saxophonist Jim Pepper, who passed away. I would love to go and jam with a couple of Native musicians—that would be awesome.

In addition to Bailey—and Holiday and Fitzgerald--what other musicians have influenced you, and what are your favorite styles to sing?

I love Janis Joplin and the way she can sing the bluesy numbers. Her rendition of “Summertime”—I know people will disagree with me, but I think it is the greatest rendition. …I really love the blues. Another person I listen to is Bessie Smith—she was one of the really early blues singers. My parents listened to such a wide range of music, and my mom is really into Buffy Saint Marie. I’m learning a couple of her tunes on the guitar. I don’t want to limit myself.

Are you working on another album?

I’m hoping to record the Mildred Bailey tribute, which would be awesome because the sound of an eight-piece band is so cool—it sounds like a big band, but it’s not as many people so it’s not so intimidating. I’m also working on a ton of stuff here at Miami—I would like to lay down a couple of tracks.


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