WHAT COLOR IS THE MUSIC? WHAT ETHNICITY IS JAZZ?

This open letter from the young singer Julia Keefe is, I think, a very gracious way to discuss an uncomfortable subject.  Since Miss Keefe is not in any way polemical, I might take the opportunity for a few lines.  In the history of giving honors and recognition to jazz musicians and singers, there has been a fairly clear hierarchy.  African-American men got first preference (and under that rubric were included all players whose ethnicity looked in the least similar), then followed by Caucasian men.  A long pause ensued, then African-American woman, followed by a few women of other ethnicities.  This isn’t an attack on Jazz at Lincoln Center, Mr. Marsalis, or any of the other august players and critics connected with JALC . . . but a quick perusal of the evidence will, I think, prove my general contention here correct.

When I was on the hiring committee at my college, we were instructed and encouraged — in the name of fairness, diversity, and equity — to ask ourselves “Who’s missing?” when we considered our prospective candidates.  In this context, I believe that the answer to that question can properly begin with the name MILDRED BAILEY at the head of the list.  I know that the late Richard M. Sudhalter and Hoagy Carmichael would agree with me.

Here’s Miss Keefe’s letter:

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE NESHUI ERTEGUN JAZZ HALL OF FAME

March 19, 2012

Mr. Wynton Marsalis

c/o Selection Committee

Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center

33 West 60th Street, 11th Floor

New York, N.Y. 10023

Dear Mr. 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, FL, studying vocal jazz performance. I am also a member of the Nez Perce Indian Tribe. Shortly after I first became interested in jazz over ten 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, ID, 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.

Respectfully,

Julia Keefe

Nez Perce Tribal member #4152

Frost School of Music, Class of 2012

www.whereismildred.com

www.juliakeefe.com

May your happiness increase.

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19 responses to “WHAT COLOR IS THE MUSIC? WHAT ETHNICITY IS JAZZ?

  1. A lovely letter that inspired me to dust down an old LP of Mildred’s – she was cool before cool was cool!
    I always link Mildred, Maxine, Connie and Lee as the epitome of jazz vocal. All four probably influenced Ella and Billie to a greater or lesser degree.

  2. Warmhearted, too. Does your LP have THANKS FOR THE MEMORY on it? Or YouTube might — so poignant. Nice to hear from you, Lance!

  3. No but it does have a lovely These foolish Things and some tracks with Ellis Larkins and Barry Galbraith.

  4. John P. Cooper

    In the old Mildred Bailey 3 LP set on Columbia, drummer Jo Jones was quoted as saying, ‘Mildred Bailey and the Boswell Sisters were the only white chicks who knew what was going on.’

  5. Donald Coates

    I believe Mildred Bailey Rinker’s brother, Al Rinker, was one of the original “Rhythm Boys” with whom Bing Crosby first gained prominence.

  6. Ah, the middle-Forties Crown and Savoys, I think — then try YOU STARTED SOMETHING.

  7. "Bananas" Foster

    Incredible that Mildred isn’t already in this ‘hall of fame.’ Incredible that it requires a petition to the commissars of jazz for recognition of her greatness. Don’t they listen to records?

  8. Mildred’s 1943 recording of “In Love In Vain” is one of the most beautiful recordings I know. You can download almost everything she recorded between 1931 and 1947 from Amazon (the dear old Chronological Classics series) and as Mr Dedrick observed, she never made a bad recording.

  9. John P. Cooper

    “In Love In Vain”
    fwiw – pretty sure that is from 1946.

  10. What a lovely voice!
    Also remember the wonderful vocalist from Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma who was said to be part-Cherokee. I read once that she considered Jack Teagarden and Pee Wee Russell as tribal brothers and told a writer that “All Cherokees can sing.”

  11. A great letter and I hope no-one tries to ascribe any racial prejudice to Miss Keefe, as her intention seems to me to be clear, and it’s certainly *not* any form of racism, or any attempt to diminish the supreme contribution of Afro-American musicians.

    People of Native American family backgrounds (including some mixed-race people) have played a big part in jazz, but often remain unrecognised, or simply described as “white.” Apart from Mildred, I understand Lee Wiley, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell and Frank Trumbauer were all, at least partly, of Native American family backgrounds. And, of course, there is Big Chief Russell Moore!

  12. John P. Cooper

    Mildred Bailey
    Lee Wiley
    Kay Starr
    Jack Teagarden
    Frankie Trumbauer
    Pee Wee Russell
    Big Chief Moore
    Keely Smith

  13. Reblogged this on The Jazz House and commented:
    This was absolutely wonderful…thanks for sharing it!

  14. let’s add Oscar Pettiford to the list.

  15. John P. Cooper

    http://tinyurl.com/3-Deuces-w-Pettiford-Garner-He ard

    Color marque by Bill Gottlieb

  16. John P. Cooper

    Mildred Bailey
    Lee Wiley
    Kay Starr
    Jack Teagarden
    Frankie Trumbauer
    Pee Wee Russell
    Big Chief Moore
    Keely Smith
    Oscar Pettiford

  17. Thank you to Ms Keefe for an excellent, clearly reasoned, letter. Her argument is well presented and she hits all the right notes to nail the correct tone (it would “do honor” to the hall of fame, etc). She has steered clear of purple prose, excessive subjective opinion, and gushing sentimental hyperbole – and, incredibly, any mention of the genocide our country has yet to come to terms with. Her timing here seems perfect (interesting that this letter appears the same week that Jim Thorpe’s grave site is in the news), and it will be interesting to see what the committee decides. If nothing else at least its members can now say they’ve heard of Mildred Bailey. If the whole jazz singer thing doesn’t work out, we could sure use Ms Keefe’s skills in other arenas – say arguing cases before the supreme court.

  18. There was also that cat from Washington, a certain Edward K. Ellington… His maternal grandmother had African-American and Native-American ancestors, if I am not mistaken?

  19. Nothing surprises a well-worn jazz blogger, JSA!

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