Julia Keefe Shines
By Tim Johnson
When the exhibit Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture was conceptualized there were two main messages we wanted to convey. The first is that American Indians have been and remain significant participants in the development of contemporary music, shaping and scoring (in some cases literally) the soundtracks of our lives. From Mildred Rinker Bailey, the Coeur d’Alene vocalist who reigned during the golden age of radio in the 1930s and ’40s; to Link Wray, the Shawnee innovator of the power chord, distortion, and the hardcore instrumental Rumble; to Taboo, the Shoshone and Mexican Grammy award-winning, platinum-selling member of the Black Eyed Peas, Native musicians have not only made an impact, but have become important figures in American music history.
The second key message of the exhibit, supported by the museum’s associated contemporary music programming, is that the American Indian music scene is broad, diverse, and growing. It includes phenomenal blues and rock bands, folk singers, hip hop artists, country music stars, and several remarkable rising talents worthy of recognition, like Nez Perce jazz vocalist Julia Keefe.
Julia first came to my attention when my programs staff scheduled her to perform at our museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2009 during Jazz Appreciation Month. Accompanied by an eight-member ensemble from Harvard University led by Jerrol Pennerman, Julia regaled the audience with classic jazz numbers, including some of Mildred Bailey’s hit songs. I was struck by this emerging Native artist’s respectful acknowledgement and tribute to Mildred Bailey. By honoring the past and highlighting the achievements of a Native woman who navigated around and broke through racial barriers in the epic ragtime and jazz decades, Julia also brought respect and esteem upon herself. In the selection of her preferred genre through her pursuit of higher education, there is maturity and sophistication in Julia’s approach to her music, her career, and her life.
Beyond paying tribute to Mildred Bailey by performing her songs, Julia has also embarked upon a campaign to gain formal recognition of Bailey’s achievements and contributions. In an eloquent, well-researched, and compelling letter to Wynton Marsalis and fellow members of the Selection Committee earlier this year, Julia urges that Mildred Bailey be considered for induction into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center “in recognition of her groundbreaking role in jazz history.”
The letter draws attention to many of Bailey’s accomplishments, including her role in Bing Crosby’s career; her emergence as the first female big band singer in America; her influence upon her contemporaries including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward, and Ella Fitzgerald; and the importance of joining her story of success to the stories of other prominent Native women who “rose above the challenges they faced and helped to change history.” Julia writes, “Recognition of Mildred Bailey in the Jazz Hall of Fame would, I believe, open a door to a largely neglected and ignored chapter in the history of this all-American art form known as jazz: the involvement of First Americans.”
As a conceptual author of the exhibit Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture, I couldn’t agree more. Mildred Bailey and all of the artists featured in the show, some well known and others not so well known, deserve the nation’s recognition and respect. In ways both fitting and unintentional, but born out of intelligence, right-mindedness, and I suspect exceptional parenting, Julia has also, in my perspective, earned our attention and admiration. In addition to her well-arranged and finely crafted performances honed in collaboration with other exceptional musicians, Julia has skillfully blended her culture and community-based life experience from her years spent in the town of Kamiah on the Nez Perce Reservation with her formal education at the University of Miami’s prestigious Frost School of Music. Julia has already signaled that she intends to live a life of purpose that combines meaningful pursuits with the joy her music brings both to her and to others.
It is therefore fitting that Julia Keefe will be kicking off our Native Sounds Downtown concert series celebrating the opening of Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians In Popular Culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Her performance begins at 4 PM on Thursday August 2 in front of the main steps of NMAI–NY at the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, located between Bowling Green Park and Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Should it rain the concert will be held inside the museum. I encourage everyone in the area to attend the concert. For those who live too far to travel, view the concert’s live stream on our museum’s website. Julia will be followed by Grammy-winning musician Bill Miller (Mohican) and singer, songwriter, and human-rights activist Martha Redbone (of Choctaw/Cherokee heritage).
Tim Johnson (Mohawk) is Associate Director for Museum Programs at the National Museum of the American Indian.