Julia Keefe has several things in common with Mildred Bailey:
• Both are Spokane-raised jazz singers.
• Both have Native American roots.
• Both are known for singing the great standards of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael.
Their most significant difference?
Bailey’s heyday was in the 1930s; she died in 1951.
Keefe is a 20-year-old college student, too young to order a drink at the LeftBank Wine Bar, where she will perform tonight.
Yet Keefe (who’ll also sing the national anthems at tonight’s Spokane Chiefs hockey game) has already established herself as an accomplished jazz singer and the foremost interpreter of Bailey’s songs.
Her biggest gig so far?
“Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs,” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., last April.
“It was the coolest experience – it was standing room only for both shows, and there were people from all over the world,” said Keefe.
“A few of the people there said, ‘I’m 80-something and I saw Mildred in L.A.’ But for most of the people there, it was an education.”
They learned something about the remarkable legacy of Bailey, who went from Tekoa, Wash., where she was a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, to a place in jazz history as the first woman singer to front a big band, Paul Whiteman’s. She went on to score huge national hits with “Rockin’ Chair” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
They also learned something about Keefe, who already had plenty of professional jazz experience under her belt. She made her jazz debut at the late, lamented Ella’s Supper Club in 2005, at age 16.
Keefe was born in Seattle and lived in Maryland for a few years. At age 5, she moved with her family to the Nez Perce Reservation in Kamiah, Idaho. Her father, Tom Keefe, is of Irish descent and her mother, Joann Kauffman, is half Nez Perce.
“She wanted us to have that connection (with the reservation),” said Keefe. “We lived there for six years. I have nothing but happy memories of growing up on the reservation and having lots of cousins around and going to our small church.”
At Kamiah, she made her singing debut at age 8, belting out the national anthem at a Martin Luther King Day event.
“I forgot the words and ran offstage, crying,” said Keefe.
But the tribal elders recognized her talent and booked her to sing the anthem at the biggest high school basketball game of the year. She still has a video of that performance.
“I was a really scrawny little kid in a red velvet dress,” she said.
Keefe’s family moved to Spokane in 2000. She attended St. George’s School for two years and then Gonzaga Prep, from which she graduated in 2007.
She sang in the school choirs, took vocal lessons from local singer Kristina Ploeger and launched her solo jazz career at Ella’s and other Spokane clubs.
Meanwhile, she had developed a fascination with Bailey. She first heard about Bailey while reading up on Bing Crosby; Bailey had been his mentor, in many ways. The more she read, the more she became convinced that Bailey was an underappreciated jazz innovator.
Keefe also got in touch with Julia Rinker Miller, Bailey’s niece and daughter of Crosby’s former musical partner Al Rinker, who shared plenty of stories.
She began to feel a connection with Bailey and also realized that Bailey’s repertoire included many of the songs that she already loved to sing – swing-era numbers by Porter, Gershwin and Carmichael.
Keefe realized she could turn her own jazz act into a Mildred Bailey tribute. She launched the idea in May 2007 at Ella’s.
“It was a fun, full house,” said Keefe. “It was like a history session with jazz sprinkled in.”
Then she went off to college at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and landed a singing gig at that city’s Twins Jazz Club. In the audience was someone from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, who came up with the idea of a Mildred Bailey tribute at the museum as part of the Smithsonian’s Jazz Appreciation Month
Now, every gig she does is, to some extent, a tribute to Bailey.
“My repertoire is primarily Mildred songs anyway,” said Keefe, who has since transferred to the University of Miami, where she is majoring in jazz vocal performance.
One big difference between her and Bailey: the actual sound of their voices.
“Her vocal style was very high, with a distinct vibrato,” said Keefe. “I have a low voice, so I do her songs my own way. I do try to steal some of her phrasing, which was very innovative and noteworthy.”
So if you go to the LeftBank Wine Bar tonight, you won’t be hearing a Mildred Bailey impersonator, you’ll be hearing Julia Keefe.
But you’ll also learn a little bit about the remarkable woman the world once called Mrs. Swing.
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