As we’ve reported before, jazz vocalist Julia Keefe, Nez Perce, is on a quest to bring deserved recognition to a Native jazz pioneer — Mildred Bailey, Coeur D’Alene, who passed away in 1951. Earlier this month, the young singer helped Bailey to earn a posthumous accolade.
The full story of this honor goes back seven months, to a Christmas Party on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, at which Keefe sang for members of the Idaho legislature. Many of the tunes she performed had been recorded decades ago by Bailey. Keefe told the legislators about Mildred Bailey’s story, and so inspired them that a concurrent resolution was passed in the spring by both the Idaho House and Senate, and also by the Governor, honoring Mildred Bailey.
Mildred Bailey was raised at Desmet, on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. She was the first woman to sing with a big band, the Paul Whiteman Band. She was credited by Bing Crosby himself as being the person who helped get his career started. She opened the doors for such jazz greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday.
On July 2, a luncheon was held in the same building as the Christmas party was held. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter was present, as were several key legislators and the entire Coeur d’Alene tribal council. Julia Keefe was back, and Mildred Bailey’s niece Julia Rinker Miller came up from California.
“This was all brought on by Julia,” said Tribal chairman Chief Allan. “She brought it to our attention to get this going, not only recognizing an Idahoan but recognizing a Coeur d’Alene tribal member who was very important to the world of jazz.”
Later, Allan told Julia that, “It’s hard to look around for someone who inspires us and someone people look up to. Growing up I struggled with the same thing. You were able to find that and embrace that [in Mildred Bailey].”
Governor Otter read from Resolution #49, honoring Mildred Bailey: “A jazz pioneer who blazed a trail that hundreds of other women have now traveled and we will never forget her contributions to the American jazz and blues musical idiom.”
“It was the right thing to do and long overdue,” Otter added. He presented Chairman Allan with signed and framed copies of the resolution. Allan in turn, later at the luncheon, presented framed copies to Julia Keefe.
“I am so humbled and blessed to be here today,” Julia responded. “We’re going to get Mildred Bailey the recognition she deserves and I thank you so very much.”