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Indigenous big band to convene for unique show

Keefe has been a vocalist and musician for many years. (Courtesy Julia Keefe)

Jazz vocalist, actor and educator Julia Keefe (Nez Perce) has achieved something uncommon. She’s assembled an all-Indigenous, 16-piece big band for a May 19 performance at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, Washington.

Keefe says that while Indigenous jazz musicians, ensembles and big bands hold a place in the contemporary jazz world and in the first half of the 20th century – today it is a rarity to see one, let alone 16, on a stage. The “Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band” has an ambitious goal, she said – to perform new music inspired by traditional melodies and to help create and nurture the next generation of Indigenous jazz musicians.

Keefe is based in New York City, but she isn’t a stranger to South Florida. She earned a degree in jazz vocal performance from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music in Coral Gables.

The Tribune recently asked Keefe about her life and music. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How long have you been working on this project?

I have always dreamt of singing in front of a big band since I was a little girl. This project in particular is the culmination of not only my dream but also that of Delbert Anderson (Diné). When he and I first met in fall of 2020, we talked for a long time about Native jazz musicians and the hope to one day have an all-Indigenous big band. There is a historical precedent for the project, with big band and marching bands popping up on reservations in the 1930s. So really, this project continues a long forgotten tradition.

Will you be doing other performances?

Hopefully this show will kick off a nice long tour or a series of performances around the country. I really want to build a strong community of Indigenous jazz musicians so that we are all connected and can support and perform with each other. I also hope this will foster educational opportunities for other young Native musicians. I hope this is a movement that will grow.

How did you get your musical start?

My first musical memory is of Billie Holiday. My mom had a collection of her greatest hits. Her voice and the melodies she sang haunted my brain as I grew up. I started studying music in junior high, and began competing in the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival (in Idaho) as a solo vocalist in the eighth grade. I continued to compete through high school and eventually won my division in my senior year of high school. When I was 15, I began performing professionally in Spokane (Washington). 

What are your childhood memories?

My early childhood was on the Nez Perce Reservation. I lived in Kamiah, Idaho, on my family’s farm. My memories of my childhood are all happy ones. I loved growing up with all my cousins. We were a bunch of rowdy girls who loved to play basketball and ride horses and get into trouble. I had a speech impediment as a kid but that didn’t stop me from singing the national anthem at the biggest basketball game of the season. That was my very first public performance. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to live on my tribal lands with my extended family and with the support of my people. My elders’ belief in me and my singing really did set the stage for a life in the arts.

Tell us more about your personal life and family.

I’m just a small town girl living a life of music in the big city. I have a dog named Leia, after Princess Leia – the ultimate shero. I also have two cats named Lilith Eleanora and Fitzgerald Dillard. My mom is JoAnn Kauffman, a leader in Native health. Her sisters, Hattie Kauffman and Claudia Kauffman, are my aunts. Hattie was the first Native American to file a report on a national news broadcast. My uncle, the late John Kauffman, was an actor of film, television and stage. My dad is Tom Keefe. He represented David Sohappy in the “Salmon Scam” trial. 

Jazz singer Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) is very important to you?

Bailey was the first woman to sing in front of a big band in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She was of Coeur d’Alene descent and helped get Bing Crosby his start in the music industry. It is so important for her contributions to be remembered and celebrated. No her, no me – and I know that is true for many, many jazz vocalists who followed the trail she blazed. It is also important to remember her Indigenous heritage. We as Native people have a place in this music. I am still incredibly hopeful she will be inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame [at the Lincoln Center in New York City]. Her time will come, I have no doubt.

For more information on the May 19 show and to purchase tickets, click here.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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