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Mildred Bailey’s music lives on in Zonky Jazz Band and friends concert

June 2, 2022 Updated Fri., June 3, 2022 at 10:32 a.m.

It’s a special event when guitarist and bandleader Garrin Hertel and vocalist Julia Rinker pay tribute to jazz icon Mildred Bailey. But when the Spokane multimedia artist and Bailey’s niece tip their hat to Bailey on Friday at Montvale Event Center, Hertel’s Zonky Jazz Band will be joined by Ken Peplowski, who is one of the greatest clarinetists in the world.

“I can’t express how excited I am to be part of this event,” Peplowski said while calling from New York. “Mildred Bailey had such a great sense of timing and feeling in her singing. She had it all. And it’s not like we’re talking about someone who is ancient history. Music fans should know what she accomplished because she was so great, and there was no one like Mildred Bailey.”

Unfortunately, Bailey, despite being a huge star during the Roaring ’20s, slipped into the cracks of history. Bailey was born in 1900 in the Tekoa area, and her family moved to Spokane when she was 13. Her brothers, Al Rinker and Miles Rinker, formed a band with Bing Crosby, who admired Bailey. When Bailey turned 17, she moved to Seattle to work as a sheet music demonstrator at a department store.

She relocated to Los Angeles shortly thereafter to establish her career. Bailey found work for Crosby and her brothers in L.A. Bailey headlined Hollywood clubs in 1925, performing jazz, pop songs and vaudeville standards. She blew up by landing a gig with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1929.

“Paul Whiteman and his group were the biggest stars of their day, and Mildred became the biggest thing in his band,” Hertel said. “Mildred was the first woman to front a national orchestra. Mildred paved the way for the careers of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.”

Even though Bailey had a big hit with what became her signature song, “Rockin’ Chair,” and was dubbed “Mrs. Swing” (her husband, xylophonist Red Norvo, was Mr. Swing), the vibrant entertainer is a relative footnote in music history.

“My aunt’s musicality was subtle,” Rinker said. “I think that’s another reason she isn’t as well-known as Ella Fitzgerald, who could scat like nobody else. She was so supportive of Billie, who was also brilliantly talented.” Before Holiday reached the upper echelon of jazz, Bailey employed Holiday’s mother as a housekeeper.

“My aunt had a huge influence on Ella, Billie and myself,” Rinker said. “I know she was fiery. Whenever I would act up as a child, my father would say, ‘You’re acting just like your aunt,’ which I took as a compliment. I wanted to be just like her.”

Bailey died of a heart attack at age 51. “I was just 7 at the time, and it hurt badly,” Rinker said while calling from L.A. “But she had a huge impact on me.” Rinker, 76, has carved out a laudable career as a vocalist. The elegant entertainer has been an in-demand sessions singer for more than four decades. Rinker has recorded with icons such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Olivia Newton-John.

Rinker sang the theme “Come and Knock on Our Door” for the hit sitcom “Three’s Company.” “I had to rerecord that song every year,” Rinker said. “It was such a great time with ‘Three’s Company,’ ” Rinker said. “John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce Dewitt were like family.

“When I look back, it’s been an amazing career, but I want to do more, especially when it comes to my aunt.”

Rinker hopes to work on a one-woman show honoring Bailey, and Hertel would like to make a film about Bailey’s life. “I think Mildred’s life would work well as a biopic,” Hertel said. “She was funny, stylish and came up with these funny phrases. The word was that she came up with the phrase ‘he sends me.’ ”

In the meantime, Hertel and Rinker will keep Bailey’s memory alive via concerts. “I’m very much looking forward to the show since I feel so connected to that city,” Rinker said. “Spokane is a special place for myself and my family.”

Rinker’s father Al grew up in Spokane, but his children came of age in Los Angeles. “When I was growing up, Doris Day and Johnny Mercer, people like that, would turn up at our house. Music was always there, and when I was really young, Mildred, who was such a special person, was there. I love my family. I have such great memories.”

The Zonky Jazz Band is akin to extended family for Rinker. “They are like my brothers and sisters,” Rinker said. “I love the energy I feel from Garrin and the Zonky group. I feel like I’m joining my father’s past when I’m up there singing with them.

“I can feel my father and aunt when I perform. I feel like I can see my father through Garrin’s eyes. We’re all interlocking with that energy whenever we perform in Spokane. When I go back there, it’s always like coming home.”

Rinker will sing a third of her Aunt’s songs. Zonky Jazz Band vocalists Olivia Brownlee of Liberty Lake and Liv Tracy, a 19-year-old Mead High School alum, will handle the rest of the songs.

The Zonky Jazz Band, which also includes trumpeter Michael Harrison, saxophonist Robert Folie, clarinet player and arranger David Larsen, guitarist Steve Bauer, bassist Patrick Morgan and drummer Andy Bennett, is working on an album, “Home: A Swingin’ Tribute to Mildred Bailey,” which the group hopes will see the light of day by November.

Many of the songs from “Home” will be rendered at Montvale Event Center. “We won’t be playing the entire album, but we’ll play a good bit of it and a number of songs that aren’t on the record,” Hertel said.

“But the concert and the album have the same goal, which is to celebrate Mildred Bailey and to inspire music fans to learn more about her. So much of her music has had an impact on pop culture, and most people don’t realize it. Her song ‘Home’ was part of ‘The Shining’ soundtrack. Her music is out there.”

The Zonky Band often plays Bailey’s tunes at Lucky You Lounge. “We’ll be out there during the summer working on and tweaking those tunes before we disappear and focus on the recording,” Hertel said. “The arrangements are finished, and now we’ll be working on the easy part.

“What we hope to be able to accomplish with the album and the shows is to move people, and if Mildred was here to move her with the hope she would be tapping her foot or rocking her chair to what we’re doing, which we think is very special.”

To contribute to the GoFundMe for “Home: A Swingin’ Tribute to Mildred Bailey,” go to zonkyjazzband.com.

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