An Open Letter to the Neshui Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame
Dear Mr. Wynton Marsalis and fellow Selection Committee Members:
My name is Julia Keefe, and I am a student at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, studying vocal jazz performance. I am also a member of the Nez Perce Indian Tribe. Shortly after I first became interested in jazz over 10 years ago, I began researching the life of Bing Crosby, who also attended my high school, Gonzaga Prep, in Spokane, WA. I was surprised and happy to learn that Bing Crosby gave credit for his early success to a Native American woman from the Coeur d'Alene Tribe named Mildred Rinker Bailey who had, like me, lived her formative childhood years on her Idaho tribal reservation before moving to Spokane and discovering jazz. I am writing to urge that Mildred Bailey be considered for induction into the Neshui Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame in recognition of her groundbreaking role in jazz history.
To say that Mildred Bailey inspired me in my chosen vocation as a jazz singer would be a great understatement. But I am not alone. Bing Crosby once said, "I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life. I learned a lot from her. She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs." And a sideman from her husband Red Norvo's band, trumpeter Lyle "Rusty" Dedrick once wrote, "She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her—and they don't even know it. Mildred Bailey probably never made a bad record; she made many that were excellent, and quite a few considerably better, even, than that."
As the very first female big band singer in America, Mildred was a role model and inspiration for contemporaries including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward and Ella Fitzgerald. She opened the door of opportunity for every female lead singer who followed the trail she blazed. Her singing style and phrasing caught the ear of aspiring young singers of that era including Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, and still, much later, Linda Ronstadt. She was respected and admired by performers including Frank Sinatra, the Dorsey brothers, Coleman Hawkins and Artie Shaw. A 1944 Time Magazine review of her show at the Café Society in New York called Mildred, "just about the greatest songbird in the U.S."
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. When I was living on my own reservation in Kamiah, Idaho, I came across old photographs of tribal members in small ensembles and quartets, playing jazz. One group, the Lollipop Six, was made up of young Nez Perce men who had learned to play their instruments while attending Indian boarding schools in the early 20th century. I can still recall how proud Lionel Hampton was when he visited our reservation to be honored while attending the international jazz festival at the University of Idaho that still bears his name.
On too many reservations in modern America there are not enough inspirational stories of successful native women who rose above the challenges they faced and helped to change history. But Mildred Rinker Bailey, did just that. Though widely thought to have been a white singer, Mildred was, in fact, a member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. Mildred once called traditional Indian singing, "a remarkable training and background" for a singer. "It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that make it squeak; it removes the bass boom from the contralto's voice," she said. "This Indian singing does this because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you've got to cover a lot of range." Every Native American who has ever attended a tribal ceremony, whether a feast, a memorial, or a modern pow-wow, knows exactly what Mildred Bailey was talking about here. I believe that Mildred Bailey's success as a jazz vocalist is grounded in her early vocal training and development from singing traditional tribal songs as a young girl on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation.
I would deeply appreciate the chance to provide you and the other selection committee members, and your entire international voting panel, with a complete packet of information that I have collected while researching the remarkable career of the first female vocalist in America to sing with a big band. Recognizing Mildred Bailey's pioneering, ground breaking accomplishment, would do honor to the Neshui Ertegun Hall of Fame, and provide Indian tribes from across this country a symbol of their own contribution to the rich cultural heritage of a uniquely American art form that I have come to love, thanks in large part to Mildred Bailey.
Julia Keefe is a Nez Perce tribal member and will graduate from the Frost School of Music this year; WhereIsMildred.com; JuliaKeefe.com. Shewas raised on the Nez Perce Reservation in Kamiah, Idaho, before moving to Spokane. She received an outstanding vocal soloist award at the 2007 Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho, and performed her tribute "Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs" at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian during International Jazz Appreciation Month in April, 2009.