Coeur d’Alene Tribe celebrates jazz great’s reservation roots

The roots of swing – or at least, the roots of Mrs. Swing, jazz legend Mildred Bailey – reach deep into the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.

Bailey – born in 1900 in Tekoa and raised in Desmet, Idaho, and Spokane – was once described by the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz as “the first white singer to absorb and master” the sounds of her jazz-singing black contemporaries.

The only problem with that description? The “white” part.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, with a big boost from the Idaho Legislature, has launched a new push to recognize Bailey’s background as a Coeur d’Alene tribal member as well as her significant place in jazz history. On March 23, the Idaho Legislature approved a resolution honoring Bailey as a “jazz pioneer.” Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief J. Allan, who helped introduce the resolution, said the tribe is “happy to see others recognizing what a special talent she was.”

Her father, Charles Rinker, was of Scots-Irish descent. Her mother, Josephine Lee, was an enrolled Coeur d’Alene tribal member. That meant that Mildred and her brothers were tribal members as well. Mildred Rinker grew up on a farm near Desmet on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. The family moved to Spokane’s North Central neighborhood in 1912 or 1913.

Her Native American heritage was not exactly a secret. After the Rinkers moved to Spokane, people sometimes referred to them as “breeds,” according to relatives quoted recently by the Associated Press. Her Associated Press obituary, in 1951, specified that she was “part Indian.”

And over recent decades, her tribal background has been often noted and documented. She was once quoted as saying, “I don’t know whether this (Indian) music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable training and background.”

Spokane historian Jim Price, who is researching a biography of Bailey, said that Bailey “applied the influences of her Native American mother and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s music to the emerging product of Tin Pan Alley.”

Yet when she broke onto the national jazz scene in the late 1920s, the most significant part of her racial heritage was simply this: She wasn’t black. This made her different from almost every jazz and blues singer of any significance until then.

Here’s a brief primer on Mildred Rinker Bailey and her undeniable impact on jazz and popular music:

• Josephine Rinker was a fine musician who taught her daughter how to sing and play the piano. Bailey and her mother also taught music to her brother, Al Rinker, and probably even his friend, Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby.

• Bailey left Spokane when she was a teenager and had a brief marriage in Seattle to a man named Bailey. She ended up in Los Angeles in the mid-1920s, singing at Hollywood speakeasies and cabarets. She specialized in the kinds of bluesy tunes popularized by Ethel Waters.

• Bailey’s musical career and connections emboldened brother Al Rinker and Bing Crosby to embark for Hollywood in a jalopy in 1925. They stayed with Bailey for weeks. She arranged their first audition – an audition that launched the pair as a vaudeville team and Crosby, in particular, on one of the biggest entertainment careers of the 20th century.

• Crosby and Rinker returned the favor in 1929, by making sure that their bandleader, Paul Whiteman, got a chance to hear Bailey sing at a party. Whiteman hired her on the spot and put her on his radio show the next week. She was the first “girl singer” to front a major big band.

• By 1930, she was the highest-paid performer in Whiteman’s band and became, in the words of jazz historian Gary Giddins, “an instant favorite of the jazz elite.”

• She soon became a hit-making singer, most notably with a Southern-tinged Hoagy Carmichael tune, “Rockin’ Chair.” She earned the lifetime nickname, “The Rockin’ Chair Lady.”

• She had numerous entries on “Your Hit Parade” – the 1930s equivalent of the Top 10. There were some weeks in 1937 and 1938 in which four of the Top 10 songs in the nation were sung by Spokane singers, either Crosby or Bailey. (Now there’s a Spokane record that will never be surpassed.)

• She married jazz xylophone star Red Norvo in 1933. They were billed for years as Mr. and Mrs. Swing. She divorced Norvo in 1945.

• Her career began to trail off during the 1940s. Bailey, a diabetic, had developed heart problems. When she was hospitalized in 1949, she was nearly broke. Among those who helped out with her medical bills were Crosby, Frank Sinatra and songwriters Jimmy Van Heusen and Alec Wilder.

• She died of a heart ailment in 1951, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The organist at her funeral played “Rockin’ Chair.”

• Crosby later called Bailey “a genuine artist with a heart as big as Yankee Stadium.” He wrote that he was lucky to have known such a great jazz singer at such a young age.

In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service honored her (along with Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday) with her own 29-cent stamp. A young Spokane jazz singer, Julia Keefe (a Nez Perce tribal member) has recently performed tributes to Bailey around the country, including at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The recent Idaho state Legislature resolution, sponsored by Sen. Jim Hammond, Rep. Bob Nonini and Rep. Eric Anderson, is partly aimed at convincing another influential institution to give Bailey her due. They are encouraging the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame in New York to nominate Bailey and induct her.

Whether that happens or not, the Idaho resolution has at least brought new attention to Bailey’s legacy and her Coeur d’Alene heritage.

“More than just a great singer, Mildred was a pioneer,” said the tribe’s Allan. “She paved the way for many other female singers to follow.”

“Her standards for focus on the lyric, timing and diction show up in the work of singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Tony Bennett,” said Price, “and far overshadow the recognition she once had herself.”

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