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Idaho tribe touts ‘Mrs. Swing’s‘ Indian roots
“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?”
“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.
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