Search For Jazz Singer’s Roots Brings Together Two Julias

May 3, 2012

In the late 1930s, a sweet-voiced singer from the Northwest helped propel the nation into a new era of music, known as swing. Her name was Mildred Bailey -- sometimes called the “Rockin’ Chair Lady,” for her signature song ...

Bailey went down in history as a white vocalist who helped popularize jazz singing. Except, she wasn’t white. Bailey was half Coeur d’Alene Indian – a fact that received little attention, until recently. Correspondent Jessica Robinson has this story of two women, both named Julia, who Mildred Bailey brought together decades after her death.

Julia Keefe is an aspiring singer from Spokane. Back when she was in high school, she researched her hometown’s favorite son, Bing Crosby.

In Crosby’s autobiography, Keefe made a discovery.

Keefe: “He mentioned this woman named Mildred Bailey and how he appreciated knowing her so early in life. And it just sparked a curiosity. So I started just digging.”

Keefe learned that Mildred Bailey had done more than inspire Bing Crosby. At the end of the Roaring Twenties, she became the first female singer with a major jazz orchestra, giving the hugely popular instrumental genre …

… a voice.

And it wasn’t just any voice. Keefe uncovered a public opinion poll in the liner notes of a Billie Holiday album.

Keefe: “It has Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, one, two, three. But Mildred Bailey was at the top. She was the one to beat.”

But Keefe, now 22, says as she got deeper into Bailey’s life, she started to notice inconsistencies in the basic facts.

Keefe: “Like her date of birth, where she was from, what her ethnicity was.”

Julia Keefe is half Nez Perce Indian. So it was especially meaningful to learn that Mildred Bailey was half Coeur d’Alene. Bailey was born sometime around 1900 and spent her childhood on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho.

Mildred Bailey hadn’t exactly kept this information a secret ...

Keefe: “But I don’t think it was something she was broadcasting. I think she wanted to keep herself ethnically ambiguous.”

Yasinitsky: “The music business was extraordinarily segregated at that time.”

Greg Yasinitsky teaches jazz history at Washington State University.

Yasinitsky: “You know it’s a really interesting kind of history because there were a lot of black musicians who would pass for white because the money was better and the touring schedule was better. And Mildred – certainly there would have been an advantage to being perceived as a white singer.”

Julia Keefe, meanwhile, wanted to know what Bailey was really like. And that’s what led Julia Keefe to Julia Rinker-Miller.

Rinker-Miller: “Mildred Bailey is my aunt. She was my father’s sister.”

Julia Rinker-Miller remembers making up little dance routines for her elegant Aunt Millie in Los Angeles in the ‘40s.

Rinker-Miller: “Her presence was very powerful. And I found her just other-worldly. I was just nuts about her.”

Rinker-Miller had heard parts of her family’s past here and there. Childhood taunts her father received for being half Native American. Music class at Catholic school on the reservation. But for the most part, Julia Rinker-Miller saw her musician father and her Aunt Mildred through the glitzy lens of show business. Only through Julia Keefe, did she start to think about their lives as Native Americans.

Rinker-Miller: “It’s given me a sense of my own roots. Like, my god, I’m understanding who I am. Like Wow!”

In fact, she learned Mildred Bailey once credited traditional Native American singing with shaping her voice.

But there’s something else that both Julias found in their search. A little-known song both acknowledge is a low point in Bailey’s repertoire. In 1938, Mildred Bailey followed a fad of singing about Native Americans in a way that most people today would find offensive.

Julia Rinker-Miller says the song, “Wigwammin’” disguises Bailey’s identity in a parody of Native American cliches.

Rinker-Miller: “You know, this is the point, how really sad and heartbreaking it is, that people were not able to come out and wear their culture and be proud of it.”

Julia Keefe doubts Bailey saw the song as an homage to her culture.

Keefe: “Of course, as a Native American woman, it was a little jarring at first, but I think it was just one of those things you had to do. You break down the walls you can. But you also had to play the game.”

In 2009, Keefe performed a tribute to Bailey at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. “Wigwammin’” was not on the set list. Keefe chose songs that she felt showed Bailey’s unique place in jazz history -- like Bailey’s “There Will Never Be Another You.”

Keefe: “There’re two versions of this song, there’s one that everyone usually plays [sings tune]. But this other song that Mildred recorded was [sings different tune]. It’s completely different from the other version.

Julia Keefe and Julia Rinker-Miller are now both campaigning to have Mildred Bailey inducted into the Lincoln Center’s Jazz Hall of Fame as a Native American jazz singer. Keefe says she no longer sees Bailey as a research subject. She sees her as a friend.

Keefe: “And maybe that’s cheesy. Seeing what she accomplished. It gave me the strength to look at myself as not just another girl from Spokane. I’m sure Mildred Bailey was called just another jazz singer too.”

Julia Keefe keeps a picture of Mildred Bailey on her wall. When Keefe graduates with a degree in music this spring, she’ll take it with her.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network