Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band brings visibility to Indigenous people through jazz

    It is a rarity to see a solo Indigenous jazz musician perform, let alone sixteen on stage at once. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - The Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band is a trailblazing ensemble that showcases the Indigenous roots of jazz through the creative expression of Indigenous artists.

    Juneau Jazz & Classics and Áak’w Rock Music Festival partnered to jointly present the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band this weekend.

    They played their opening performance Friday night at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

    They also had two more performances Saturday, with a show at the University of Alaska Southeast's Noyes Pavillion for students, and at the Crystal Saloon.

    Juneau Jazz & Classics annual spring music festival continues through this week and next weekend, with performances from Awadagin Pratt, Zuill Bailey, James Logan, and Phil Wiggins Blues House Party. 

    Native American director, singer, and songwriter Julia Keefe talked to News of the North Friday night.

    "The community has just been so loving and welcoming. Some of the band members and I went to the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples rally at the state Capitol, which was incredibly powerful and important that we acknowledge that," she said. "Especially on this day that we're performing, as a woman who runs this band and all Indigenous band. I'm really honored to be able to share this music on such an important day. And hopefully bring more visibility to that incredibly, incredibly important and time-sensitive issue."

    Keefe is a nationally acclaimed and award-winning jazz vocalist, actor, activist, and educator currently based in New York City. She is Nez Perce. It was her first time in Juneau, and she said she loved flying over the mountains.

    She explained that they bring awareness to Indigenous artists by lifting them up the way they know how-through music.

    "So much of what we do is about bringing visibility to Indigenous issues anyway. The Indigenous presence in jazz not only historically but in a contemporary standpoint, being able to be there and to be amongst relatives who have lost relatives," she said. "Members of our own band, we all have intimate knowledge of this issue, honoring those people who have lost loved ones but also to honor those who have been lost. We bring visibility to Indigenous people, as a whole."

    The big band’s music fuses traditional jazz with Indigenous storytelling and culture, creating a unique sound that has captivated audiences around the world.

    Keefe addressed the audience multiple times throughout Friday night to explain the significance behind their songs, many of which were composed by band members themselves, such as by the trombonist Wade Demmert, saxophonist Rico Jones, and bassist Mali Obomsawin. 

    Below: Keefe said her favorite song from their performance was Mildred Bailey's "Rockin' Chair."

    Bailey's "Darn That Dream" was also performed.

    When talking about Mildred Bailey, Keefe said this.

    "Indigenous artists have always had a place in jazz," she said. "Mildred Bailey was a Native American jazz singer during the 1920s and 1930s, and she helped popularize jazz singing. We have always been here."

    Bailey was known as "The Queen of Swing", "The Rockin' Chair Lady" and "Mrs. Swing". She was Coeur d'Alene Indian.

    In 1989, Bailey was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

    Keefe reflected with the audience on starting to sing jazz at a young age, and that when she discovered Bailey's music, it reaffirmed to her that this was something she could do.

    Above: Keefe sings Bailey's "Rockin' Chair" with fierce soul. Below: Administrative support and bass player Mali Obomsawin, who is from Odanak First Nation, sings in her language. The band's last song they performed in their set was Obomsawin's "Blood Quantum" from her album Sweet Tooth. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    "We are the only race that I can think of...that has to prove it," Keefe said before they performed Obomsawin's piece.

    Below: Rico Jones is the co-director of the Big Band and he plays the tenor saxophone. He played many solos throughout the night. The band also performed pieces he composed. This is from his piece "Earth", which he said was fitting to play after seeing Juneau's lush scenery. He is Mesoamerican and Andean. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Below: Keefe said although it may be subtle, she wanted to keep the message of National Missing and Murdered Indigenous People's Day on the stage through the form of a red dress. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Below: Edward Littlefield, Lingít, plays the drums solo. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Below: Chantil Dukart plays piano. She is Tsimshian and Sugpiaq/Alutiiq. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

    Below: More photos from the band's opening night. (Photo credit Jasz Garrett/KINY)

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