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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Indigenous Big Band, led by Gonzaga Prep graduate and Nez Perce Native Julia Keefe, to play at Kennedy Center

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

From the small stage at Ella’s Supper Club in Spokane to a national platform at the Kennedy Center, songbird Julia Keefe is spreading her wings.

Gonzaga Prep grad Keefe (Nez Perce) is the director of the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band, and on Saturday, the group will headline at the Kennedy Center’s 27th Annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. The two-day celebration hosted by vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater honors the “first lady of jazz” Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), and the phenomenal women who continue to shape the genre.

“It’s really wild,” Keefe said. “We’re still a very young band – we’ve only had three live performances and haven’t recorded an album yet.”

Keefe’s star continues to rise. The 2007 Outstanding Vocal Soloist alto division at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival went on to open for jazz/pop icon Tony Bennett and immersed herself in a mission to honor legendary Coeur d’ Alene jazz musician Mildred Bailey. The Mildred Bailey Project’s first studio recording was released this year.

Keefe’s current project came about when she was named the recipient of the 2021 South Arts Jazz Road Creative Residency.

“Delbert Anderson (Diné) and I had tossed around the idea of an all-Indigenous big band, but it’s a huge, expensive undertaking,” recalled Keefe. “It was a pipe dream until I was awarded full funding.”

Thrilled, she and Anderson, her co-director, set about making the dream come true.

“We wondered if there were even enough indigenous jazz musicians for a big band,” she said.

They contacted universities and performing arts communities from Hawaii to Canada with heartwarming results.

“We had kids reach out from places like Oklahoma, saying, ‘I thought I was the only indigenous person in jazz,’ ” Keefe said. “It’s become a network – a community.”

She’s not the only local in the band. Sixteen musicians make up the group, including Lewis and Clark graduate Rogan Tinsley (Native Hawaiian) on alto saxophone. Tinsley is the son of S-R photographer Jesse Tinsley.

“It’s a Duke Ellington-size band,” said Keefe.

In addition to Keefe and Anderson, the group features a who’s who of Indigenous bandleaders, including Mali Obomsawin (Odanak Abenaki), Chantil Dukart (Tsimshian) and Ed Littlefield (Tlingit).

They debuted in May 2022 at the Washington Center for Performing Arts in Olympia. The following May, they played at the Juneau Jazz & Classics Spring Festival in Alaska – but their big break came in January.

“I ended up getting a grant for the Western Arts Alliance,” Keefe explained.

She used those funds to bring the band to New York for the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference.

“Every performing arts professional descends upon Manhattan to see or be seen,” she said. “I threw all of my eggs into the Indigenous Big Band basket, and it paid off!”

The band performed a sold-out show at Joe’s Pub. That standing-room-only gig netted them valuable industry buzz and got them a booking agency, which resulted in a slew of upcoming tour dates, though none in the Northwest yet.

“Everyone was talking about the Indigenous Big Band,” said Keefe. “People were stopping me on the street! I’ve been hustling since I was 13 – this is the life I’ve chosen. It’s been a long game, a slow burn, and things are really taking off. The journey has been so much fun!”

Saturday’s gig at the Kennedy Center is part of a five-day residency developed as part of the Kennedy Center Office Hours and the REACH venue.

Keefe said their set list will, of course, feature a Mildred Bailey song. For those who are surprised by the idea of an all-indigenous big band, she offers some historical context.

“The band is part of a much larger legacy of Indian boarding school survivors returning home to their tribal lands and creating marching bands, big bands, and small jazz ensembles throughout Indian Country,” she said. “There is a marriage of indigenous and jazz traditions.”

The honor of performing in such a prestigious setting offers a paradox.

“We are playing in the nation’s capital, funded by the federal government,” Keefe said. “The irony isn’t lost on me.”

The setting offers a unique and timely way to showcase the mission of the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band.

“We want to amplify the voice of the past by showcasing the history of the indigenous in jazz as well as their current vibrant presence.”

Contact Cindy Hval at