In 1929, a Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indian vocalist joined Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra to become the breakthrough big-band “girl singer” who opened doors for many who followed.
Mildred Bailey 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. 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.”
Mildred Bailey’s crystal-clear voice rang out from bandstands and radios everywhere in the ’30s and ’40s. Known as “Mrs. Swing,” she topped the charts three times between 1938 and 1940. Among her many hits were “Rocking Chair,” “Says My Heart” and “Darn that Dream,” the latter recorded with Benny Goodman and his orchestra.
Bailey died of a heart attack in 1951, and until recently, her music was largely forgotten.
Now Julia Keefe, a young jazz singer from the Nez Perce Tribe, is among those reviving Bailey’s repertoire. On April 11, Keefe debuted a program titled “Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs” in a performance at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The Rasmuson Theater was standing room only when Keefe and the Jerrol Pennerman Octet took the stage.
Photo courtesy United States Postal Service Singer Mildred Bailey, Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, was commemorated on a postage stamp in 1994.
“Mildred Bailey made each song her own, emoting them in ways that other people didn’t,” said Keefe, 19, a student at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “She didn’t have sheet music, so she memorized from recordings. If she couldn’t remember a note, she improvised it.”
Keefe, who grew up in Kamiah, Idaho, on the Nez Perce Reservation, and in Spokane, Wash., has been singing professionally since age 15. In 2007, she won the outstanding vocal soloist award at the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival. She turned to Bailey’s music as a way of “paying homage to my roots as a female Native American jazz vocalist.”
Bailey’s cultural identity has long been debated by jazz aficionados. “She was an early hipster and she talked a lot of jazz slang,” said Jim Price of Spokane, who is writing a biography of the singer. Bailey described herself in a recording of “St. Louis Woman” as “a little, short, fat squatty mama.” Her appearance led to the occasional conjecture that she had African-American ancestry. More often she was categorized as a white artist who was influenced by her friend, the African-American blues singer Bessie Smith.
Even Bailey’s age was a matter of dispute; she claimed to have been born in 1907 – which would have made her 44 at her death – but other accounts indicate her birth date may have been 1900.
“She and her brothers were about 7/16s Indian, or just under half,” Price said. Bailey had an allotment on the Coeur d’Alene reservation and her family had also lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation. She grew up in Tekoa, Wash., near Spokane.
“As a girl, she was exposed to tribal music,” Price said. “Her mother was a fine musician who played the piano and who also took part in tribal music.”
Bailey 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.”
Bailey was also noted for her sense of rhythm in her jazz phrasing, in which she emphasized the unexpected word. Her influence is strong among performers like Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. Crosby, who grew up in Spokane and sang with Bailey’s brother Al Rinker in the Rhythm Boys, credited Bailey with giving him his start in the music business and later wrote that she had a heart “as big as Yankee Stadium.”
Poster courtesy Kauffman and Associates, Inc. A poster for Nez Perce vocalist Julia Keefe’s recent program “Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“Mildred Bailey is overlooked as a pop singer and as an influence on other jazz singers,” said composer Tom Molter, who arranged the music for Keefe’s performance at the museum.
Since 2001, when Mosaic Records released “The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey,” a 10-disc career retrospective, her music has enjoyed a resurgence on jazz stations and among women jazz singers. She is currently featured in an exhibition at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y., titled “Native Americans in the Performing Arts: From Ballet to Rock and Roll.”
For Keefe, who comes from a neighboring tribe to Bailey’s, the connections are deep. Keefe’s family researched Bailey’s lesser-known songs, like “Bluebirds in the Moonlight,” which Keefe wants to make her own. Hear Keefe perform “Rocking Chair,” written for Bailey by Hoagie Carmichael online.
At first, Molter wanted to put a more modern take on the tunes for Keefe. But they settled on the original arrangements, which he transcribed from recordings by the likes of Goodman. The effect is that of the 1920s and ’30s pre-swing era – but then, Bailey was swinging ahead of her time.
Keefe hopes to spread the jazz world’s resurgent interest in Bailey to Native circles through her recent performance at NMAI.
“I put these songs together to make sure people don’t forget about Mildred Bailey.”