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To 'honor the shoulders we stand on:' Big band premieres with nod to history of Native jazz musicians

Tom Banse/Northwest News Network
The Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band posed for a commemorative photo after their premiere in Olympia on May 19, 2022.

A scheme to entertain a 4-year-old youngster in Spokane by playing a jazz album nearly three decades ago produced a cascade of aftereffects that culminated on stage in Olympia, Washington, this month with crescendos of horns and multiple standing ovations.

The pandemic has been hard on artists and cultural organizations. Donors and foundations have tried to keep arts and culture afloat with grants and relief programs. One such grant launched an unusual new musical group here in the Northwest.

"Putting together a big band has definitely been in the back of my mind ever since my high school days and well before," said Julia Keefe, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and a jazz vocalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She's the band leader for the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band.

"I was born in Seattle back in the 1980s, and I grew up in Spokane, Washington, as well as Kamiah, Idaho," she said.

Keefe said she started listening to big band music "when I was about four years old. But I didn't start singing with big bands until the very end of high school. I was able to be a guest vocalist with my high school big band," she said. "I just remember the power of all of those horns and just being transported. It was such a wonderful experience and I have always wanted to have my own big band.

"One of the things that came out of Indian boarding schools for those that survived was a knowledge of Western music. There were Indigenous big bands on reservations all over the country. There were small ensembles all over the country. From my own tribe, we had the Nez Perzians and the Lollipop Six. 
But it's a history that is often forgotten. So many people don't know about that. We want to correct that. That is one of our missions. To honor... to also inspire those yet to come," he said.

Delbert Anderson is part of Keefe's band.

"I am from the Dine tribe, the Navajo Nation. I am the co-director of the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band and I also play third trumpet in the group.

"Right away from the first rehearsal, everyone had this one spirit mindset. You know just in general, Indigenous history isn't that great. But you always hear the stories of them moving forward. I think every Indigenous person believes and knows that we all carry that forward spirit. I really wanted to join just to be with a clique or a group of Indigenous musicians who get that idea," he said.

"Sometimes people have a very specific idea of what a Native musician is -- or what Native music is," Keefe said.

"Every big band is different. With the original compositions, they don't sound anything like your normal jazz big band. It's very different because it comes from a different place," Anderson said.

Jazz singer Julia Keefe and trumpeter Delbert Anderson premiered their new big band premiered last week (5/19) at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia. They have invitations for additional gigs, but haven't scheduled any yet.