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July 31, 2012

Julia Keefe Shines

5. Julia_keefe_red

Nez Perce jazz vocalist Julia Keefe. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.

4. julia_outside
Julia Keefe returns to the National Museum of the American Indian—this time in New York for our Native Sounds Downtown concert series Thursday, August 2,
at 4 PM. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.”

For the 1994 commemorative stamp set Jazz Singers, Legends of American Music, the U.S. Postal Service chose Mildred Bailey (above), Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Rushing. Illustration by Howard Koslow, courtesy of the USPS.

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.


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By Julia Rinker-Miller

As someone never interested in blogging, I feel I finally have something to blog about. So here I go ...

My name is Julia Rinker-Miller. I'm the niece of Mildred Rinker Bailey and the daughter of Al Rinker - boyhood chum of Bing Crosby who, together in an old Model-T Ford, traveled down from Spokane to Los Angeles in the twenties (staying with Aunt Milly who was singing in speakeasies) to seek their fortunes in show business.

Essentially and - eventually - Milly became "Mildred Bailey," my dad became an inspired composer of pop music and hauntingly lovely semi-classic works set to poems of famous poets like Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns ... and we all know what became of Bing!

As a 2nd generation "Rinker" singer, who's carved out a sustaining, most gratifying career "behind the scenes" as a Studio Singer in the recording, television and film industries of NY and LA during these last several decades ... I've worked with the best-of-the-best in the biz - giving me the confidence to have an opinion or two about what makes for good music and about who's making it.

After years of being "on the inside" of my aunt's life, that includes my start as a singer in the sixties working in the studios with some of the same great musicians who'd worked with Mildred in bands and on recordings from the late twenties through the forties (their stories of her shared with me were epic) ... it wasn't until the last few years, when introduced to young Julia Keefe, her music and "her" story - that I was given a whole new glimpse of my aunt "from the outside."

What I knew of my father's and his Rinker siblings' (one girl, four boys; one died at 18 months) earliest life on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in Idaho - was reverently cocooned within the folds of my father's memory. Because that was the realm where he'd first been exposed to the magic and mystery of music through his boogie-woogie/ragtime/classical-playing, piano prodigy of a Native mother, no period in his life was ever spoken of with more love or longing. And because his mother died from TB when he was only eight (Mildred was 14) after they'd moved away to Spokane - when the umbilical cord to his Native roots was prematurely severed - I intuited my dad in a state of subtle, subliminal grief the whole of my life with him. Did my aunt share that same sense of loss? I was too young to have that conversation with her when she died in 1951, but can only speculate from the undercurrent of my family dynamic and from her numerous quotes in newspaper and magazine articles, record liner-notes, books and family letters - that she did.

To sense the presence of a lingering energy in search of its homeland can beget a poignant, disconcerting and gnawing feeling of responsibility inside those sensitive to their loved ones. And so it's been with me concerning my father and his family for as long as I can remember. But it wasn't until being given the gift of perceiving Mildred Bailey through the eyes of another young native girl, Julia Keefe, 3 or so years ago, that a light bulb went on allowing me to step in - with conscious conviction - as surrogate healer (if you will) on behalf of my father, aunt, their siblings, my grandma and the whole of my grandmother's family - fully recognizing who they are, who they've always been, where they've come from .. and "bring them home" in real time.

A month ago I experienced a moment that will remain forever glowing in my being. On July 1st, I flew up to Spokane, staying with Julia Keefe and her family, to join them the following day at a luncheon on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation where the Tribal Council, Governor "Butch" Otter of Idaho and several state legislators were in attendance to ceremoniously honor my aunt after the passing of the "Mildred Rinker Bailey Resolution" this last March in Idaho's Capital. In essence, the bill recognizes my Aunt Mildred as a significant daughter of Idaho and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe for her contributions to American Jazz. And suddenly, as at the end of a rainbow, I was being given a golden opportunity to empty my heart to my grandmother's people on behalf of my father, aunt and family ... reopening old channels and completing new circuitries of love.

At the end of the luncheon I heard Julia (the lovely Nez Perce girl responsible for catalyzing the call for legislation last Christmas when the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council and local Representatives from Idaho's Legislature first saw and heard her "Mildred" program in this same room) sing live for the very first time. And all I found myself "reporting" within was: "Oh Aunt Milly ... she's good ... she's really good!!!" And that's one reason I'm blogging.

As I said, I feel I know good when I hear it. I've had artists like Crosby, Sinatra and Clooney come up to me on television shows, record dates or during social gatherings wanting me to know that my aunt had greatly influenced their phrasing and singing. And how good were these artists! My aunt was an original, joyous, authentic channel for music-in-the-becoming. And it appears that much of that music became Jazz as we know it. I grew up never questioning the default, catch-all conclusion that Mildred Bailey was a "white" singer. Again, I was too young to hear from her directly how being Native American affected her as a girl. I can only report - first hand from my father - that he'd suffered being called "breed" as a child and that it scarred him emotionally. Such potent damage of the psyche could possibly explain his having to unknowingly send the "Native" in him underground where it never ceased beckoning through his emotions.

Although obviously more at peace with her Native heritage (corroborated in quotes I've recently read of hers) because she was older and had support from her mother longer than my dad, perhaps Mildred wasn't fully aware just how much her exposure to Native singing on the reservation influenced her pristine, ego-less phrasing and rhythmic integrity ... because I've never heard of her ever balking at being called the first "white" this or first "white" that!

I see my Aunt Mildred's music in a different light these days. Along with my own experience as a professional "utility" singer who's had to know her vocal instrument well enough to create different vocal sounds for different jobs (singing in whatever bags or musical styles required), I also seem to be running across more and more Mildred quotes where she references American Indian music as having impacted, not only her approach to singing, but her instrument itself.

After much inner mulling, I recently wrote the following to a preeminent jazz journalist acquaintance and am sticking with my take on the matter: "With Indian Singing being a vocalise unto itself, stringing flute-like vowels fluidly and vertically together like a prayer released to heaven ... why has no one made the point that the Native American might have, through Mildred, brought a more personal, internal and reserved musical ethic and structure to jazz that wasn't there in the robust, laterally-expressive pleas of Black gospel-blues! In terms of the dynamics, Mildred seemed more interested in the conversation going on inside herself than in one wanting to be shared with the congregation."

The "Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture" exhibit at Manhattan's NMAI is a lively, timely testament to the fact that perhaps many lone, far-flying "Native" birds are finally coming home to roost. And while thoroughly in support of Julia Keefe's most righteous point that my Aunt Mildred belongs in the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center (let alone any jazz hall of fame), I'm equally "jazzed" at the idea of the Native Community claiming not just one of its own, but all of its own in a tribute to American Indians who've contributed "greatness'" to our National contemporary musical profile.

In fact, with this very theme in mind, I'm currently preparing to give all I've got in support of a book project on Mildred Bailey soon to be initiated by Chad S. Hamill - American ethnomusicologist and author of "Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau" - where he'll be doing a scholarly and soul-inspired exploration of how Native American Indigenous culture gracefully wove its way through my aunt's musical artistry and into what we call "American Jazz."

While unable to fly in (myself) from California for the 4:00 "kick-off" concert at the opening of Thursday's exhibit ... or to the Ribbon-Cutting/Preview Reception afterwards at 6:00, I have asked my wonderfully talented (in the Rinker tradition) New York-based drummer son, Christopher Markwood (Miller), to represent both mother, great aunt and family in my stead.

Not only do I expect Chris to "report in" that Julia Keefe and her fellow artists on the bill gave brilliant performances, I also anticipate his seeing for himself - through the Native perspective - what all the fuss has been about regarding his Great Aunt Mildred and her contribution to Jazz. Mildred Bailey's great nephew needs to understand that he, too, carries the same genetic potential to bring the Spirit of the Soul to his music ... just as generations and generations of Native Americans before him have done.

May A Great Light Wash Over The Events Of The Day ~

Julia Rinker-Miller
(Niece of Mildred Rinker Bailey)

Congratulations Julia! I think people who has talent must be recognize and support by other people.

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Thanks. the information is very useful

Beautiful lady with a beautiful voice ;)

The power of voice represented by Julia Keefe.

Congrulation julia, your voice is very beautiful, i like your songs

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she is dam beautiful love her...........

Julia ? from where is she ? I had never heard about her before this is the first time, so when it's the first time I'm going to look for her in youtube to listen to her songs
with my Love

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