BOISE, IDAHO (AP) - 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.
“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.