A plan to entertain a 4-year-old in Spokane by playing a jazz album nearly three decades ago produced a cascade of sequels that culminated onstage in Olympia, Wash., this month with crescendos of horns and multiple standing ovations. In the debut of a 16-piece, all-Indigenous big band, performers on stage listened even further into history to celebrate the little-known, but long, lineage of Indigenous jazz musicians and great bands.
Band leader Julia Keefe, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, traced the beginning of the chain of events back to her early childhood when she listened to a jazz and swing record, the great Billie Holiday.
“I just remember being a kid completely enthralled by Billie’s sound and also her sound in the context of a big ensemble,” Keefe said in an interview ahead of his own big band’s May 19 premiere.
Keefe said it wasn’t until very late in high school that she herself first sang with the backing of a big band, and then made up of her Gonzaga Prep Jazz Band classmates. Keefe now works as a professional jazz singer based in Brooklyn, New York.
“Making a big band has definitely been on my mind since my high school days and way before that,” she said. “It was always something I wanted to do, but I never expected to have the opportunity.”
The coronavirus pandemic, which has been so hard on artists and cultural organizations, has made the dream come true in a roundabout way. Donors and foundations have tried to keep arts and culture afloat with grants and relief programs. Keefe applied for and received a $40,000 grant to start the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band in Washington State. Support came from the non-profit organization South Arts, which is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with additional support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.
Then the question became how to fill a 16-piece band, recalled Keefe and band co-manager Delbert Anderson.
“Are there even 16 native/indigenous jazz musicians who would want to do this?” said Keefe. “It was amazing the response we got.”
Keefe and Anderson said they could have brought together two all-Indigenous big bands with the talent that came out of the woodwork. Selected participants had ties to Indigenous peoples of the Americas, including Alaska, Hawaii, eastern Canada, the southwestern United States, the Great Plains and the Caribbean.
“From the first rehearsal, everyone had that spirit mentality,” said Anderson, who is from the Diné Tribe of the Navajo Nation. “You know just in general, Indigenous history isn’t that great. But you always hear the stories of them moving forward. I think every Indigenous person believes and knows that we all carry that spirit of future. I really wanted to join just to be with a clique or a group of native musicians who have this idea.”
“We hope this is the start of something powerful,” Keefe said as he greeted the enthusiastic audience at the premiere held at the sprawling Washington Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Olympia. On stage, she sported a shimmering gold dress and high heels with the band lined up behind her in matching charcoal suits and togs.
Keefe went on to describe how the band wanted to “honor the shoulders we stand on”, a reference to the long line of Indigenous jazz musicians who preceded his generation.
“One of the things that came out of residential schools for those who survived was a knowledge of Western music,” Keefe said. “There were aboriginal big bands on reservations across the country. There were small sets all over the country. From my own tribe, we had the Nez Perceans and the Lollipop Six.”
“It’s a story that is often forgotten,” she continued. “We want to try and fix that. It’s one of our missions – to honor those who got us here, but also to inspire those who are still to come.”
The band’s setlist highlighted the historic hits of Oregon-born and raised jazz fusion pioneer Jim Pepper, who was of Kaw and Muscogee Creek heritage, and Depression-era singer Mildred Bailey – aka “Mrs. Swing” – which was half Coeur d’Alene.
The unusual new big band also played a number of modern compositions by its own members, which had thematic inspirations as varied as a significant Indian Country monument in New Mexico, the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II and the strict rules for determining tribal citizenship. . The final track, “Blood Quantum” by bassist Mali Obomsawin, shifted from big band melodies to a surprise ending of chanting to the beat of an Aboriginal drum.
“Every big band is different,” Anderson remarked. “With the original compositions, they’re nothing like your normal jazz big band. It’s very different because it’s from a different place.”
What will happen next with the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band is unclear. The grant only covered a creation residency, rehearsals and the first performance. Keefe said more grants may be needed to reunite dispersed attendees for future concerts. Keefe and his co-managers Anderson and Rico Jones said they would like to see a condensed or expanded version of the band go on tour. A video production team filmed the mid-May rehearsals and world premiere, so there’s a documentary in the works. [Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network]