During her time in the Inland Northwest, jazz singer Julia Keefe has built quite a résumé.
She has competed in, won (as a high school senior in the alto division) and been a featured performer at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho, opened for the likes of Esperanza Spalding and Tony Bennett, taught jazz voice at Gonzaga University, performed a tribute to American Indian jazz singer Mildred Bailey and, as a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, helped create the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival.
Outside of the area, Keefe has performed in Paris and Los Angeles and made her big screen debut in “Virginia, Minnesota” this summer.
Next up on her to-do list is finishing the first semester of graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music, where she is enrolled in the jazz vocal program.
When she spoke to The Spokesman-Review, Keefe had just gotten out of rehearsal with her Brazilian combo, prepping for a concert held two days later.
But before that, she had to perform in the monthly gig in Greenwich Village the school arranges for students the following evening.
“That was one of the big draws of the program was that not only am I working with jazz vocalists who are still working and still very much in the scene, but they’re very, very encouraging of us going out there and performing,” Keefe said. “There’s a center for entrepreneurship here at the school. The school is very much about getting musicians not only educated, but getting them gigs, which is great.”
In her first performance in Spokane since moving to New York, Keefe will sing with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra at the “An Ella Fitzgerald Christmas” concert on Saturday at the Bing Crosby Theater.
Keefe performed with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra as one of four guest vocalists in the orchestra’s “Latin Divas” concert in 2014, but this is her first time performing with the orchestra as a featured vocalist.
Spokane Jazz Orchestra Director Don Goodwin reached out to Keefe about the possibility of performing with the orchestra when he took over from Tom Molter in 2015, but for one reason or another, having Keefe perform during a concert didn’t work out until now.
“They ended up reaching out to me, which was so cool because I grew up in Spokane, and being the big jazz nerd that I am, going to see SJO play was always so much fun,” Keefe said. “Getting to be one of four vocalists with the SJO back in the ‘Latin Divas’ concert was a dream come true.”
In regards to the “An Ella Fitzgerald Christmas” setlist, Keefe promises lots of Christmas classics with a few surprises thrown in.
“We’re keeping it very purist in some respects, but there’s also going to be some fun arrangements from (musicians) like Harry Connick Jr., who came from New Orleans, so he always has really, really interesting arrangements that he brings to it,” she said. “There’s an arrangement of ‘My Favorite Things’ that Don Goodwin arranged for this show. It’s going to be a variety but it’s going to be a lot of those classic, really fun Christmas tunes in a really solid jazz swing style.”
Keefe doesn’t remember exactly how old she was when she first heard Ella Fitzgerald sing, but she knows she was young and just getting into jazz.
On a road trip, her family listened to several Starbucks compilation albums that featured the songs that influenced contemporary artists. One album (Keefe believes it was Norah Jones’ collection) featured Fitzgerald’s performance of “Mack the Knife” from her “Ella in Berlin” album.
“That was when she forgot all the lyrics and so she improvised all the lyrics,” Keefe said. “It was virtuoso-quality vocal improvisation, and I want to say that was first time that I really listened to Ella and she really made a lasting impression on me, listening to that recording and being totally blown away by her quick wit and her musicianship.”
Keefe will only be in town for the weekend before she has to return to New York to complete her finals, which means she will have minimal time to rehearse with the orchestra.
At the moment, she’s practicing her parts alone with the sheet music and recordings.
“Friday, we’re going to come together and iron out any wrinkles so it’s ready to go for Saturday,” she said.
After she completes her finals, Keefe will fly back to Spokane for Christmas break, during which she plans to spend time with her family and perform at the Davenport Hotel on New Year’s Eve with the MasterClass Big Band as part of the Spokane Symphony’s annual Puttin’ On the Ritz” fundraiser.
Then, it’s back to New York to start her second semester of grad school.
As crazy as the past few months have been for Keefe, she loves the challenge of living and going to school in New York.
“I feel like this is the first time I’ve ever been in a place where I’m not thinking about ‘The grass is greener in Paris or the grass is greener in Los Angeles,’ ” she said. “It’s like ‘Oh no, my grass is green!’ It’s a struggle but it’s totally worth it.”
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