By Julia Keefe
Julia Keefe is a jazz vocalist and a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. Her show, “Thoroughly Modern: Mildred Bailey Songs” was the centerpiece of Jazz Appreciation Month 2009 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. Find her music online at juliakeefe.com.
Above, a promotional shot of Mildred Bailey. Photo courtesy of the Keefe Family Archives.
“Where is Mildred?” I thought, while walking through the Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center in New York City. I had stumbled across the name of Mildred Bailey while a student at Gonzaga Prep. As an aspiring jazz vocalist, I was reading up on my fellow Prep alum, Bing Crosby. Why had I never heard of her? She was a jazz pioneer, given credit by Bing for launching his own career, and she was the first female big band singer ever. Mildred’s childhood in Spokane, and her brother Al Rinker’s friendship with Bing, are important events in the history of our city, and today’s citizens need to know about her, and all that she accomplished.
She was born Mildred Rinker on February 16, 1900 in the small town of Tekoa, Washington, and spent her childhood years on a family allotment near DeSmet, on the Coeur d’ Alene Indian Reservation, before moving to Spokane. Her mother, Josephine was a member of the tribe, and her father Charles, a railroad worker. Josephine had studied at the parochial school in Tekoa, where she learned both classical and ragtime piano from the Franciscan nuns who had come to the little railroad town from Philadelphia.
In a 1938 Down Beat interview, Mildred was asked to explain her style, and responded, “I don’t know exactly and I’ve tried to dope it out several times. The only answer I get is this: 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 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 singing 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 road – I found out they were calling this swing and liking it!”
In the 1930s, Mildred Bailey was one of the biggest singing stars in America, back in the day when radio was the medium for discovering the great bands and singers of that era. She was issuing a new recording every second or third week, and became an inspiration for young listeners like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. Other great singers ranging from Frank Sinatra to Linda Ronstadt admired Mildred’s vocal style and phrasing.
Perhaps the greatest praise directed toward Mildred by a fellow singer came from her childhood, Spokane neighbor Bing Crosby. “I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life,” wrote Crosby, in his 1953 autobiography, Call Me Lucky. “I learned a lot from her. She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs.”
Mildred’s earliest recordings were done in 1929, but her real glory years were from 1933 to 1942, and included both large orchestra recordings with her husband, Red Norvo, as well as smaller ensemble work with top musicians who appeared on her radio show and in studio sessions. Some of the most famous artists of the swing era recorded with Mildred, including Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, the Dorsey brothers, and Artie Shaw. Numerous sidemen who later gained fame working with the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras had their start playing with Mildred Bailey.
In his 1965 book, The Jazz Story, writer Dave Dexter, Jr. called Mildred the “first of the truly all-knowing hip chicks, blessed with an unerring ear and astonishing good taste in jazz.”
Mildred Bailey’s musicianship and musical taste were beyond question. Of all the singers, black or white, working in the 1930s, few could even approach the balance of phrasing, rhythm, intonation and overall musical intelligence she brought to each performance, however modest the song.
As trumpeter Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick, a later Norvo sideman, put it: “She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her – and they don’t even know it. Mildred Bailey probably never made a bad record; she made many that were excellent, and quite a few considerably better, even, than that. Norvo remained steadfast in his belief that she was the preeminent singer of her time.”
In a 1978 PBS program devoted to Mildred Bailey, her friend, the composer Alec Wilder recalled visiting her in the public ward of a hospital in Poughkeepsie, NY, and related how Frank Sinatra, who had never even met her, but [who] had such enormous respect for her that within two hours she was out of that ward and in a private room, with everything she wanted.” In the meantime, according to Wilder, “Bing Crosby had quietly picked up the mortgage on the farm, so she could live there securely, free of anxiety about money.”
Mildred was keenly aware of her Native American roots, and the influence they played in her singing. The 1994 US Postal Service recognition of Mildred quotes her as saying, “I don’t know whether this music compares with Jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable training and background. It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that make it squeak; it removes the bass boom from the contralto’s voice, this Indian singing does, because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover a lot of range.”
There can be debate among jazz fans about who was the greatest female jazz vocalist of all time. However, none of the women who ever sang in front of a big band during the swing era, including such greats as Helen Ward and Billie Holiday, are likely to have gotten their chance, without Mildred Bailey’s groundbreaking achievement in creating the role of the female singer with the big dance band.
The time has come to begin a conversation about getting Mildred Bailey inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame, where she surely deserves to be recognized. My website, www.whereismildred.com will provide information about the induction process, and how to get involved. Mildred Bailey’s time to be honored has arrived.
Listen to Julia Keefe, and her album of Mildred Bailey tunes here: