Julia Keefe’s Jazz

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

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

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.

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?

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.”

Julia Keefe
Keefe has developed a musical tribute to Bailey that will be performed at the National Museum of the American Indian on April 11, 2009. Don Hamilton

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?

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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