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Spokane Jazz Orchestra features Keleren Millham: I had ‘lost my life’

UPDATED: Thu., May 12, 2022

Vocalist Keleren Millham will join the Spokane Jazz Orchestra for an evening of song celebrating life, rebirth and the Great American Songbook at the Bing Crosby Theater at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.  (Courtesy)
Vocalist Keleren Millham will join the Spokane Jazz Orchestra for an evening of song celebrating life, rebirth and the Great American Songbook at the Bing Crosby Theater at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. (Courtesy)

For vocalist Keleren Millham, recent experience has proven time and again that sometimes you’ve just gotta lose big to win big.

Returning to the stage after two years of canceled gigs and an ongoing battle with shingles that nearly ended her career, Millham will join the Spokane Jazz Orchestra for an evening of song celebrating life, rebirth and the Great American Songbook. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Bing Crosby Theater.

After Millham unexpectedly came down with shingles in October 2019, the virus quickly progressed from her eyes to her ears and spinal column. The symptoms brought her whole world to a halt.

The smallest tasks were suddenly debilitating, and her sensitivity to everyday stimuli made isolation the best option. So, as the coronavirus pandemic rolled around, very little changed, at least in that respect.

To a certain extent, Millham explained, the pandemic almost normalized her experience.

“I couldn’t walk or talk or sing, but I could say I lost my gigs because of COVID,” she said. In a way, she had “lost her life,” but so had everyone else. “It was a way for me to rationalize it – it affected everyone.”

Today, after months of moving two steps forward and one step back, Millham has finally reached a level of health, both vocally and otherwise, where she is comfortable performing.

Waiting for her brain to heal took time. After all, she said, it wasn’t long ago that the sound of applause, brass instruments and a whole manner of other stimuli were too much for her to process.

“In the thick of it, I would have a spoon, and as I’d be trying to bring the spoon toward my mouth … the rest of my brain would say ‘No, that’s dangerous. We’re not going to let it happen,’ ” she said.

“Even now, the fact that I can talk … without stuttering or my body shuddering … it still feels a little miraculous.”

The virus has changed the way she experiences sound. But even dealing with the lingering neurological issues, Millham wouldn’t change a thing. Relearning her craft, she said, has made all the difference.

“I don’t necessarily think that things happen for a reason, but I will seek to find meaning,” she said. When her condition first manifested, she made no efforts to slow down. “I’m a bit of a push-through-it girl – or at least I used to be.”

She followed her instincts and held on until holding on was impossible.

“Being a musician – that is my identity as a human being,” she said. “So, to not know if I would ever get that back was probably a really valuable thing to have to move through.”

Now, instead of pushing through, Millham has shifted her technique toward “leaning in.”

“Everything that I’ve been through so far has prepared me to really be with it and embrace it and learn how to lean in … to honor my body,” she said. And, as she continues to heal, her work, it seems, has paid off.

“My voice was so clear last night that I would radically prefer to (keep) this level of physical discomfort and be able to be with music and experience music and collaborate and explore,” she said. “I had so much joy last night.”

The concert, titled “The Great American Songbook: Then and Now,” will feature a variety of jazz classics and soon-to-be classics including several new arrangements prepared by music director Don Goodwin and four other Spokane Jazz Orchestra musicians.

The concert was originally scheduled for May 2020, postponed, canceled and now finally rescheduled. As Millham and Goodwin collaborated on the concert program, Millham felt moved to focus on pieces with an uplifting message.

Inspired by her experience of “re-entering life” and “an awareness of COVID … I’ve chosen songs about rebirth, getting comfortable in the unknown and reacquainting ourselves with the positive.”

For more information, visit spokanejazz.org and bingcrosbytheater.com.

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