By Chad Hamill, PhD, Ethnomusicologist and Spokan Tribal Descendant.
Dr. Hamill earned his PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Colorado in 2008. He is the author of “Songs of Power and Prayer in the Columbia Plateau: The Jesuit, the Medicine Man, and the Indian Hymn Singer” (Oregon State University Press, 2012).
This article appears in “Indigenous Pop” (University of Arizona Press).
Above, Mildred Bailey, the “Rockin’ Chair Lady,” sits in her comfy rocker for a publicity photo. The song, “Rockin’ Chair” was composed by Hoagy Carmichael, and made famous by Mildred Bailey. Photo courtesy of the Rinker Family Archives.
In March of 2012, the Coeur d’Alene tribe of Idaho introduced concurrent resolution no. 49 in the Idaho House of Representatives, seeking to right the historical record and bring home Mildred Bailey, one of jazz’s first female vocalists. For over eighty years, Bailey–a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe–had been known primarily as a “white jazz singer.” Lost within discussions of the origins of jazz was Bailey’s Indian identity, left to linger like a neglected crop within the Coeur d’Alene farmlands where she learned to walk, talk, and sing.
Although she could certainly be forgiven if she chose to hide her Native ancestry within a racially stratified 1930s America, Bailey never sought to do so. To the contrary, it was a source of personal pride she readily shared with those around her. Mildred Bailey was “white” because she was cast that way within a jazz narrative that has left no room for Indian jazz musicians. The “white jazz-singer” misnomer matters for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Bailey exerted considerable influence within the jazz and pop worlds, pioneering the vocal “swing” style that countless singers sought to emulate, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, and Tony Bennett. Rather than crediting her contemporaries, Bailey pointed to the Indian songs of her youth as shaping a voice that is still heard throughout the world, sixty years after it was recorded for the last time.
Bailey belonged to a family lineage of Coeur d’Alene singers, insuring that traditional songs would be woven into the fabric of her indigenous identity.
Bailey’s great grandfather was Bazil Peone, head speaker and song leader for the Coeur d’Alene tribe at the turn of the 20th century. Remembered for his contagious charisma and resounding voice, he helped lead the Coeur d’Alene people through a period of tumultuous change. Within an increasingly colonized landscape, Bazil’s electrifying oratory and indigenized Catholic hymns held the people together, illuminating a path toward a future that would be different, but no less Coeur d’Alene.
In just fifty years from the point of contact with Europeans, the Coeur d’Alene had successfully adopted static agriculture, moving away from traditional forms of nomadic subsistence in response to the continual influx of settlers in the region. In the Indian Commissions Agreement of 1889, the Coeur d’Alene tribe ceded the northern territory of their ancestral lands to the US government for half a million dollars. Funds were divided equally among Coeur d’Alene families, most of whom invested in state-of-the-art farming equipment. Born in 1900 and raised on a farm bordering the reservation by her Coeur d’Alene mother and a Scotch/Irish father, Mildred Bailey reflected this rapidly shifting landscape.
The home in which Mildred spent her formative years was perpetually awash in music. Her father, Charles Rinker, played the fiddle while Josephine, her mother, was a piano player of prodigious proportions. Mildred’s parents routinely held Saturday night gatherings for neighboring wheat ranchers, turning their living room into a makeshift dance hall reverberating with music and the percussive undercurrent of feet rattling the floorboards. For their guests, the evening wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by Josie’s young protege. In her favorite bedtime reprieve, Mildred would saddle up next to her mother at the piano. With fingers flitting over the keys and voices aligned in a well-choreographed harmony, they went through popular songs of the day, including everyone’s favorite ragtime classic, “Dill Pickles.” In addition to learning music from her mother at home, Mildred would accompany her to traditional gatherings on the reservation. During these excursions, Mildred sang in the manner and spirit of her ancestors, forging melodic bonds with countless generations who had sung before her. Like river rock made smooth by centuries of rushing waters, traditional songs were beginning to mold Mildred’s voice, casting within it the distinctive markings of its source.
During her childhood, Mildred was also exposed to the Catholic Indian hymns. In the mid-eighteenth century, a Coeur d’Alene prophet by the name of Circling Raven had a vision that foretold the coming of the “black robes.” His vision paved the way for the Jesuits, and although the path to Coeur d’Alene country took nearly a century to travel, when the Jesuits finally arrived they were received with open arms. For the Coeur d’Alene, the Jesuits and the religion they represented were the fulfillment of a prophecy and they made it their own.
The European hymns the Jesuits introduced were translated into Salish and the melodies reconfigured to conform to indigenous song style. Bazil Peone and other Indian hymn leaders sang the indigenized hymns like sacred songs given by the animal spirits, as prayers that embodied spiritual power. In this sense it can be said that Mildred’s early encounters with the melodic were not strictly musical, but distinctly spiritual in character and constitution. She was participating in an indigenous understanding of song, coming into musical ways of knowing that would inform her unique approach to singing and her invaluable contribution to jazz.
Motivated by the prospect of better schools for Mildred and her three younger brothers, Charles and Josephine moved the family to Spokane in 1912. By then Mildred’s musical foundation had been built, providing her added stability during teenage years that held promise, but were filled with heartache. After a typical day at Joseph’s Academy, where she studied buttoned-down piano music with one of its nuns, Mildred re-entered an alternate musical universe she shared with her mother at home. Josie was adept at playing everything from opera to show tunes. From the piano bench she led Mildred on musical expeditions, exploring new musical terrain that regularly crossed boundaries of style and genre. During this time they continued to make trips down to the reservation, exploring an old musical terrain that predated any of the European classical pieces Josie placed on the piano’s music desk, singing traditional songs that awakened within them a collective indigenous memory they shared with their Spokan/ Coeur d’Alene ancestors. But while the road they shared seemed one of limitless potential, it was about to come to an abrupt end. In just a few short years Josie would follow her ancestors home, succumbing to TB at the age 36. Deeply distraught at the news of her mother’s death, Mildred jumped up on her horse and rode into the surrounding countryside, hoping to escape the pain that threatened to cut her heart in two. She returned the following morning, resigned to face a profound loss that would usher in a period of acute uncertainty, during which music was often the only thing she could recognize in a cold and unfamiliar world.
Not long after Josephine passed, Charles sought a housekeeper to cook and take care of the home. After two false starts, he settled on Josephine Pierce, a Danish widow with a daughter of her own. She and Charles were soon married in a ceremony that marked a dramatic shift in her behavior. She seemed intent on ridding the home of the Rinker children, reminders perhaps of Charles’s former wife, whose essence was evoked every time Mildred sat at the piano. Resistant to her incessant bullying, Mildred told her father flatly: “If you don’t get rid of this woman, I’m going to leave.” Soon thereafter, Mildred packed up and left for Seattle.
She moved in with her aunt Ida and uncle George. With no children of her own, Ida was delighted to have the young and vibrant energy of a 17 year old in the house. For Mildred, she was happy to be wanted. After the trauma of losing her mother and enduring an intolerable turf war in which her father sided with the enemy, the maternal-like affection of Ida seemed to heal her wounded heart. All too soon, however, those wounds would be reopened. On a cold and rainy day in December, Mildred accompanied Ida and her driver for a ride along the shore of Puget Sound. The rain began to thicken, washing away all the usual points of reference. As the oncoming vehicle crossed the middle divider and entered their lane, Ida’s driver turned to the right, snapping the guardrail and sending them off a steep embankment. Mildred was the only one to be pulled from the car alive. In the span of a few months, Mildred had lost her mother, her father and brothers, and now her aunt in an accident that would physically and emotionally haunt her for the remainder of her life. If she was going to persevere, she would need to dig even deeper and sing through her pain, the same way she had heard them sing on the reservation so many times before.
After being released from the hospital, Mildred found an apartment in Seattle and began combing the Help Wanted ads. Armed with little more than her musical gifts, Mildred landed a job at Sonny’s Music Shop as a piano player and singer. Like a dealer selling cars, Mildred would take potential buyers on an auditory test drive of contemporary hits. One day a local piano player heard Mildred perform the appropriately titled, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm.” Moved by her flawless vocal style, he asked her to join him on stage at one of Seattle’s new speakeasies, the Silver Grill. After Prohibition in 1920, speakeasies proliferated dramatically in urban areas, becoming critical outlets for the emergence of jazz, America’s growing obsession. Bailey was swept up in this current, winding her way through speakeasies up and down the West coast. During her stint at the Silver Grill, Mildred met a merchant by the name of Ted Bailey. They were soon married. Sharing none of her musical aspirations, Bailey increasingly pressured her to give up touring for a life of domestic simplicity. Mildred boarded a train for Los Angeles instead, leaving her husband behind but keeping the name “Bailey,” for which she would soon become widely known.
While she was singing on the speakeasy circuit, Mildred’s younger brother Alton–a budding musician himself–was forming a band with his older brother in Spokane called the Musicaladers. He had all the musicians in place except for a drummer who could keep decent time.
They took a shot on an unknown musician who went by the name Bing. Much to their surprise, not only did he “really have a beat,” he could sing. At the time they couldn’t have imagined that in less than a decade, Bing Crosby’s voice, which could scarcely be heard from behind the drum kit, would captivate millions.
After some limited success in Spokane, Alton set off with Bing for Los Angeles in late 1925, hoping that Mildred could help them reach the next rung on the music business ladder. Driving down the coast in a haggard Model T Ford they picked up for $30 (with a missing top it came cheap), they lived a form of musical hand to mouth, playing and singing at parties and rickety roadside establishments for food, gas, and the occasional hotel room. After two weeks on the road, their winded Ford sputtered, gasped, and reluctantly rolled onto Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a stones throw from the house Mildred shared with her new husband, a successful bootlegger named Benny Stafford.
It had been three years since Mildred had seen Alton and she didn’t know what to make of the strangers at the door. Concerned, Alton pleaded, “Don’t you know me? I’m your brother, Alt.” With a flash of recognition Mildred shrieked, throwing her arms around him with such enthusiasm they nearly toppled onto the porch. After their impromptu reunion, Alt and Bing followed Mildred through the door and into the promise of Hollywood, a promise that would be kept – to varying degrees – for each one of them.
Not long after they arrived, Bailey notified Bing and Alt of auditions for a traveling vaudeville show. She drove them to the audition and they got the gig, sharing the 13-week bill with a range of acts, including a dog routine and a chorus line. While performing with the troupe some months later at the Metropolitan in Los Angeles, Crosby got a call from Paul Whiteman’s manager. In 1926, Whiteman was a superstar, reaching a level of celebrity previously unheard of in the field of popular music. Incredulous, Crosby hung up the phone. Whiteman’s manager persisted, eventually dispelling his disbelief and inviting him and Rinker to meet with Whiteman in his dressing room at the nearby Million Dollar Theater. Upon their arrival the next day, Whiteman cut right to the chase: he wanted the duo to join his band. Stunned, the young musicians–less than a year out of Spokane–got the kind of break that turns dreams into lucid, life-altering reality.
Above, a short clip from Nostalgia Magazine’s “Now You Has Jazz” – a live music, documentary film experience about the lives and music of Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Al Rinker. Produced by Nostalgia Magazine and performed by Hot Club of Spokane, this docu-concert also features Mildred Bailey’s niece and Al Rinker’s daughter, Julia Rinker, as well as Bing Crosby’s nephew, Howard Crosby.
Soon after becoming regulars in Whiteman’s New York club as the Rhythm Boys, Whiteman secured them a record contract with Victor Records. Their first recording under their new moniker was “Mississsippi Mud,” an eventual hit written by Harry Barris, the third “boy” in the ascendant trio. In 1928 The Rhythm Boys were part of Whiteman’s newly configured band, joining soon-to-be jazz legends such as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Eddie Lang, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey on records that were selling faster than they could be made.
During this time, Bailey was still in Los Angeles, gradually moving away from the speakeasy circuit. While pondering an uncertain musical future, Bailey received word that the Whiteman band was coming to town to film The King of Jazz (Whiteman would play the starring role). The band arrived to a delayed production, leaving them in limbo. During this time Bailey became fast friends with a number of the musicians, taking them up to the Hollywood hills to go horseback riding, a skill she developed while growing up on the Coeur d’Alene farm.
After the picture finally went into production, Alt and Bing suggested to Bailey that she host a party for Whiteman and members of the band. The featured attraction would be Bailey’s home brew, the nearest thing to Prohibition perfection Hollywood had to offer. Not surprisingly, the whole band took them up on it, including Whiteman. Once the party had hit a comfortable stride, Crosby asked “Millie” to sing a song. Surrounded by musical heavy-hitters, she was on edge. With her heart pounding and her nerves firing, she began to sing “What Can I Say Dear After I Say I’m Sorry.” Halfway through the first verse, Whiteman’s eyes became distant as he drifted out of conversation, put down his beer, and listened. While the words were apologetic, the voice was soulful, smooth, and beyond reproach. After the song ended, Whiteman sauntered into the family room, gave Bailey a kiss, and asked if she would sing with the band for an upcoming radio spot. Bailey’s home brewing days were over. Over the next three years Bailey was a featured singer with Whiteman’s orchestra, becoming the first woman to front a big band.
After her first record in 1929, titled, “What Kind ‘o Man Is You,” Bailey embarked on a highly productive and dynamic career that spanned the next two decades. In the 1930s Bailey was a star of radio (as well as the first female vocalist to have her own radio show) and recorded hundreds of songs, a feat unmatched by her contemporaries (including Lee Wiley and Ella Fitzgerald). After a somewhat contentious split with Whiteman, Bailey joined forces with former Whiteman sideman Red Norvo. Married in 1932, they soon earned the title of “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” Will Friedwald called Bailey and Norvo “…one of the best partnerships in jazz, like Reinhardt and Grapelli, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer, Holiday and Young.” In the mid-1930s, Bailey also enjoyed fruitful collaborations with producer John Hammond, who hired accomplished soloists like Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, and Buck Clayton to provide a subtle backdrop for Bailey on intimate sessions designed to sound as if they were sitting alongside the listener in the comfort of their living room. While Bailey’s distinct sound was being broadcast throughout 1930s America, it was becoming embedded within the musical lexicon of jazz itself, shaping the sound of singers to come. Bailey, too, had her influences, and while she would have credited Louis Armstrong with having a role in honing her jazz technique, for her the process of stylistic development was more localized:
Sheet music was hard to get in my hometown and a tune had to be learned [from] a recording or traveling band. It had to be memorized. I could never get the exact notes of a song, so I used to sit down and try to scheme out the best way to sing it smoothly. Sometimes I would think how a tune might have been improved if the composer had changed certain parts of the melody, and I would try and sing it my own way. It sort of stuck this way through the years and before I could straighten myself out– I got to thinking I was traveling down the wrong trail– I found out that they were calling this swing and liking it!
“Her way” of singing, an approach Bailey honed during her formative years, represents a critical phase in the development of jazz, still in its infancy in 1934. Back in Tekoa and Spokane, Bailey was swinging before she knew what swing was.
Mildred Bailey continued her prolific singing career into the late 1940s, during which time her health began to wane. Her thyroid was most likely damaged during the horrific car accident of her youth, causing her to gain considerable weight over the years (a condition most likely exacerbated by the rigors of the road). After being diagnosed with advanced diabetes, Bailey was given a dim prognosis; rest would likely prolong her life, but not for very long. Bailey let go of her recording and touring commitments and sold the Coeur d’Alene farm, purchasing a similar farm in Stormville, New York (just outside of Poughkeepsie). In her final year, Bailey settled into a life that had the familiar feel of those early years on the Coeur d’Alene reservation while situating her near the rhythmic pulse of the jazz and pop world she had grown accustomed to. Friends who visited her there–including Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley, and Eddie Sauter–encountered a consummate singer who had traded her love for performing for a palpable peace. Irving Townsend “remembers watching her late one night at her farm in upstate New York while she listened to a record of Duke Ellington’s “Black Butterfly.” She sat at the kitchen table with a single candle blowing in the wind from the open door. The shadows of the leaves on the maples outside the door danced all over the kitchen walls, and Mildred played the record over and over again as if afraid the trees might stop blowing if the band did.”
Sadly, Bailey’s peace would once again be short lived. While lying in a Poughkeepsie hospital, mounting bills siphoned away what money she had left, making it impossible to keep up with payments on the farm. Unsettled perhaps by the desperate physical and financial condition of a musical mentor that had given his career its start, Crosby (along with Frank Sinatra) paid her hospital bills and her mortgage. The entwined paths of Bailey and Crosby quietly crossed one last time in a graceful gesture far removed from the hustle of Hollywood. With her debts disbursed by those who understood her true worth to be incalculable, Bailey passed away on January 11, 1951, just short of her 51st birthday.
Of Mildred Bailey’s place in the history of pop and jazz, Will Friedwald states that, “No understanding of jazz singing can be complete without factoring in Mildred Bailey.” In turn, I would suggest that no understanding of Mildred Bailey’s singing can be complete without factoring in the influence of Coeur d’Alene songs. Beyond straightening out a “squeaky” voice, removing the “bass boom,” increasing vocal flexibility, and perhaps even showing her how to swing, Coeur d’Alene songs connected Mildred to spiritual ways of being in the world. Singers that connect as deeply as she has with her audience–both then and now–bring this essential development and meaning to their singing. Moving beyond range, phrasing, timbre, or even what is heard, powerful singers connect to our very soul. By singing in the manner of her ancestors, Bailey not only left an enduring imprint on America’s collective consciousness, her Spokan/Coeur d’Alene voice helped mold its most distinctive musical art form.