Three years ago, we had a summer exhibit featuring Nez Perce music, from drummers and dancers of long ago to the “Nezpercians” and “Lollypop Six” jazz and dance bands of the early and mid-twentieth century. We gave a nod in that exhibit to a young Nez Perce jazz singer named Julia Keefe.
Julia wasn’t done with music and with her Native past. With a grant in hand, Keefe and co-leader, Delbert Anderson of the Dine Tribe of the Navajo Nation, set out to build an all-indigenous big band. They worried that they could find enough talent and interest among indigenous musicians, but, in the end, according to Tom Bance of NPR’s Northwest News Network”:
“Keefe and Anderson said they could have assembled two all-Native big bands with the talent that came out of the woodwork. The selected participants had connections to Native peoples across the Americas, including Alaska, Hawaii, eastern Canada, the U.S. Southwest, the Great Plains and Caribbean.”
“The band premiered in Olympia Washington, and the set list spotlighted historical hits by 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’ – who was half Coeur d’Alene.”
This grand opening of the “Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band” was funded by grants, and it might take more of them to bring the diverse group of musicians together again, but don’t underestimate the talent and perseverance of Native musicians—and especially of this young, talented Nez Perce woman.
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