Julia Keefe and Native American Jazz

What a treat! What a performance! On Saturday, wrapping up what looks like it will become an annual “Josephy Fest,” Julia Keefe, the Nez Perce jazz singer, brought her quartet to the Josephy Center, and closed the show. She and her New York drummer, Adam Benham, U of Idaho piano player, Kate Skinner, and Mali Obomsawin, an Abenaki First Nations bass player who also plays in the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band, were stunning.

The Fest is the brainchild of pianist and Josephy Center tech wizard Seth Kinzie, and in this second year, he did not disappoint. Two days of movement—yoga and dance—and music. The music, from Native cowboy country to “Afrisonics,” a Boise blend of Nigerian and world music styles. It was all good. People practiced their yoga moves, danced and sang along, stretching minds as well as bodies around the wide range of genres and sounds.

But Julia Keefe and her quartet stopped the show as they ended it on Saturday night. We applauded the riffs of the drummer and bass player; practiced pianists goggled at Ms. Skinner’s hands on the keyboard; and Julia sang beautifully and summed it up with a solo, traditional Nez Perce funereal song she learned from and for her mother.

Afterwards, I snuck up for a few words with Julia, reminded and thanked her for her help in putting together our “Nez Perce Music” exhibit a few years ago. Told her that my goal in the show was to see music as white America tried to use it to assimilate Indians, and then show how Tribal people had found ways—always—to use it in protest. And jazz was a big part of that protest.

Julia nodded, said that she had not imagined how she could find enough Native musicians for an all-indigenous big band, then had gathered talents from across the country, and learned that they each had stories from their own tribes about historic and contemporary jazz players and ensembles. The Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band has more than a dozen players from tribes across the country and into Hawaii. They’ve played in Seattle and New York thus far, to rave reviews. One of her big band players, who is also enrolled Nez Perce, has an instrument passed on from the era of the Nez Percians and Lollypop Six on the Lapwai Reservation.

Those bands, and the Natives and jazz phenomenon in general dates to Boarding School days, when Indian children were taken from homes and families, stripped of hair, traditional clothing, and language, and put in band uniforms and handed trumpets and trombones. At Carlisle Indian School they marched to John Philip Sousa in New York parades. Many learned to play those instruments well—musical sounds were not new to people who had grown up with traditional drums and flutes and the natural sounds of water, wind, and the animal and bird worlds—and when they came home to the reservations, they brought their instruments, but not the uniforms and the Sousa. They’d caught some of pop, some of Black jazz. Sticking a figure to the eye of their oppressors, they donned their headdresses and moccasins, and called themselves “Nez Percians” and “Chief White and His Five Redskins.”

The Nez Percians played in the early years of Chief Joseph Days—I have a photo of them in the 1948 CJD parade. Years ago, when I first learned about them and wrote a blog post, someone sent me back a picture of the 1919 Mohave Indian Band from California: headdresses, moccasins, saxophones, and trumpets.

That day is done, that fight won, as Native languages, cultures, and natural resources are being revived. “Reservation Dogs” is a popular TV show, and Lilly Gladstone, of Piegan, Blackfeet, and European descent, is up for an Oscar for a movie about an atrocity played on the Osage Indians 100 years ago called “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

And Julia Keefe is reacquainting us to the historic place and current possibilities of Indigenous Americans in the most American of music genres, Jazz.

Google Julia Keefe; google Julia Keefe’s Indigenous Big Band, or catch her performance at the Josephy Center in Joseph, Oregon on Saturday night, February 17, 2024:

Julia Keefe–Josephy Center

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photo KNKX Public Radio

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