A very good question, and thanks to Julia Keefe for asking it, for making sure others hear it, and for keeping Mildred alive in her own singing!  Read all about it:

Idaho tribe touts ‘Mrs. Swing’s’ Indian heritage in bid for Lincoln Center recognition

By Associated Press, Updated: Thursday, March 15, 3:32 AM

 BOISE, Idaho — Mildred Rinker Bailey was known to fans as “Mrs. Swing,” whose slight, throaty voice won her acclaim as one of the great white jazz singers of the 1930s and 1940s.  

But the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe is now hoping to set the record straight once and for all: Bailey, who died impoverished in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1951, was an American Indian who spent her childhood on the reservation near DeSmet, Idaho.

This week, the tribe introduced a resolution honoring Bailey in the Idaho Legislature, in part to convince the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame in New York City to add her to its inductees — on grounds she helped blaze a trail for better-known singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

“Mildred was a pioneer,” said Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief J. Allan. “She paved the way for many other female singers to follow.”

Though Bailey’s Coeur d’Alene ties may not have been common knowledge among her fans, it clearly wasn’t a secret.

“Part Indian, she was born Mildred Rinker on a farm near Spokane,” reads her Associated Press obituary, dated Dec. 13, 1951.

Still, in jazz history books, Bailey has gone down largely as a white female jazz stylist.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz hails her as “the first white singer to absorb and master the jazz-flavored phrasing…of her black contemporaries.”

Howard Koslow, the illustrator who created Bailey’s likeness on a 29-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp based on an image by iconic jazz photographer William Gottlieb, said he had only that brief New Grove entry as a reference.

But his depiction of Bailey’s dark complexion and black hair, for the stamp issued in a series honoring jazz and blues musicians, appears to capture her complex heritage.

“She has that look about her,” Koslow recalled Tuesday in an interview from his Toms River, N.J., home.

Bailey was born Feb. 16, 1900, in the Washington farming town of Tekoa, near the Idaho border.

Her mother was a Coeur d’Alene tribal member, her father of Swiss-Irish stock.

At 13, she moved from the reservation to Spokane, where a neighbor destined to become world famous as “Bing” Crosby joined Bailey and her brother, Al Rinker, at the family’s piano. Al Rinker and Crosby formed the group “The Rhythm Boys.”

By the mid-1920s, all three were singing in California; in 1929, Crosby recommended to famous orchestra leader Paul Whiteman he add Bailey as a regular.

“I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life,” Crosby wrote in his 1953 autobiography. “I learned a lot from her.”

So has Julia Keefe, a 22-year-old jazz singer from Spokane.

Keefe, a member of Idaho’s Nez Perce Indian Tribe, discovered Bailey as a student at Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep, while researching Crosby’s own time at the Catholic high school.

“It took off like a flash flood,” remembers Keefe, now a performance major at the University of Miami with Bailey’s photograph hanging on her Florida apartment wall.

In 2009, Keefe performed a musical tribute featuring Bailey’s songs, including “Old Rockin’ Chair” and “He’s Not Worth Your Tears,” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

A year later, Keefe was touring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame, pondering the greats on its 18-foot video wall when she asked herself, “Where’s Mildred?”

Thus began her quiet effort to elevate Bailey’s profile in the modern jazz world, a push the Idaho Legislature hopes to assist.

“It’s sad to think she died penniless, or nearly penniless, after all the things that she accomplished,” said Rep. Bob Nonini, a sponsor of resolution. “But it’s never too late to recognize somebody.”

Lincoln Center officials didn’t immediately respond to an AP request for comment.

An important question remains: How important were Bailey’s Indian roots to her art?

An undated quotation, attributed to her by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994, hints at an answer.

“I don’t know whether this (Indian) music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable training and background,” Bailey reportedly said.

Bailey’s niece, Julia Rinker-Miller, a Los Angeles-based singer whose credits include the “Three’s Company” theme, was seven in 1951 when her aunt died in a Hudson Valley hospital, from complications of diabetes and obesity; Frank Sinatra reportedly helped pay her medical bills.

“Even though she was large, she was delicate, very exotic, sensual,” Rinker-Miller recalled during an interview Tuesday.

From her father, Rinker-Miller heard stories of how they were called “breeds” after moving from the Coeur d’Alene reservation to Spokane.

Consequently, he downplayed his own American Indian background, she said.

She figures Bailey was forced to do likewise during her career — possibly why she became known as a white artist.

“Mildred’s returning to her roots,” Rinker-Miller said, of the tribe’s effort to reclaim Bailey. “She’s going home.”

5 responses to ““WHERE’S MILDRED?”

  1. Pingback: Jazz Lives asks, “Where’s Mildred?” « Denton Jazz Chronicles

  2. Pingback: Jazz Lives asks, “Where’s Mildred?” « Denton Jazz Chronicles

  3. Dan Morgenstern

    Never heard of that lady, but sounds self-serving. JALC included Mildred in its Whiteman tribute, she was well represented by Daryl Sherman, who has done lots of Mildred, whom she admires, including a tribute CD, and quite recently, a well-received concert in Mildred’s memory in what is much closer to her roots than Idaho, namely the state of Washington. And this person seems unaware of Mosaic’s excellent Bailey box, still in print, with notes by Will Friedwald, who also gives her due credit and space in his recent monumental book on GAS and jazz singers. Furher, Mildred was proud of her Indian heritage, but attempting to cast her as non-white borders on the absurd.

  4. Dan Morganstern’s mean-spirited and inaccurate attack on my college-age daughter Julia Keefe deserves rebuttal. He may never have heard of Julia, but if he Googles “Julia Keefe and Midlred Bailey” he will discover that she has been singing Mildred’s songs and praises since high school here in Spokane. Her first Bailey tribute was at a local jazz club, ella’s, on May 29, 2007. Her show, “Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs” was presented before two standing room only audiences as a signature event for National Jazz Appreciation Month at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on April 11, 2009. Julia was accoompanied by an eight-piece group of instrumentalists from Howard University. Why Mr. Morganstern feels a need to attempt to elevate his friend Daryl Sherman by denigrating a young jazz artist bringing the Mildred Bailey story to a new generation of jazz listeners makes no rational sense. In point of fact, Julia is a huge fan of Ms. Sherman, has a well-worn copy of her tribute CD, and was partially inspired to emulate Mildred because of Daryl Sherman. I would be curious to learn whether Ms. Sherman appreciates Morganstern’s incivility toward my daughter here. Julia has studied Mildred Bailey’s life and career carefully, and does have the Mosaic set, dozens of other Mildred records, and nearly fifty examples of sheet music featuring Mildred early in her career. As for Morganstern’s assertion that “attempting to cast her as non-white borders on the absurd” insults not just a young Nez Perce singer who knows of what she speaks, but also slurs Mildred Bailey’s immediate family, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the Idaho State Legislature for attempting to, at long last, set the record straight. Mildred Rinker Bailey was an enrolled member of the federally-recognized Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and no latter day “racial revisionism” by Morganstern or any other self appointed guardian of jazz history will change that fact. Given his role as one of the seven all-male members of the JALC selection committee that makes recommendations to the overwhelmingly male international voting panel that decides who gets to be recognizd in the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, one could make the case that Dan Morganstern’s self-serving rant sounds more like the defensive posturing of the foreman on a crooked jury than that of an impartal observer. With an attitude like Morganstern’s involve, it’s no wonder the JALC Hall of Fame list of inductees looks more like an old boys club with a small women’s auxiliary than an honest portrayal of the true significance that women, including a Native American woman named Mildred Bailey, have played in jazz. The broader question posed by Morganstern’s ignorant and vicious attack is why we still live in a society that tolerates hearing well-connected white men like Rush Limbaugh and Dan Morganstern using their bully pulpits to denigrate and attack sincere, young women who voice opposing viewpoints in the public square, in a crass attempt to humiliate them. Faced with a storm of criticism for his own brutish behavior, Limbaugh had at least the minimum sense of shame needed to issue a half-hearted apology to his victim. Whether Dan Marganstern possesses any similar measure of decency remains to be seen.

  5. Stompy Jones

    A ridiculous, overheated exchange of comments, typical of the jazz world. Morgenstern is unnecessarily dyspeptic and nitpicky — why can’t he be happy that somebody, somewhere has recognized the greatness of Mildred Bailey? And Keefe’s response is over-the-top. Comparing Mr. Morgenstern to Rush Limbaugh? Calm down, fellas.

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