May 30, 2009

Mildred Bailey's tribal roots

Artist puts her spin on songs of Native jazz pioneerBailey’s cultural identity has long been debated by jazz aficionados. “She was an early hipster and she talked a lot of jazz slang,” said Jim Price of Spokane, who is writing a biography of the singer. Bailey described herself in a recording of “St. Louis Woman” as “a little, short, fat squatty mama.” Her appearance led to the occasional conjecture that she had African-American ancestry. More often she was categorized as a white artist who was influenced by her friend, the African-American blues singer Bessie Smith.

Even Bailey’s age was a matter of dispute; she claimed to have been born in 1907--which would have made her 44 at her death--but other accounts indicate her birth date may have been 1900.

“She and her brothers were about 7/16s Indian, or just under half,” Price said. Bailey had an allotment on the Coeur d’Alene reservation and her family had also lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation. She grew up in Tekoa, Wash., near Spokane.

“As a girl, she was exposed to tribal music,” Price said. “Her mother was a fine musician who played the piano and who also took part in tribal music.”

Bailey called traditional Indian singing “a remarkable training and background” for a singer. “It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that make it squeak; it removes the bass boom from the contralto’s voice,” she said. “This Indian singing does this because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover a lot of range.”
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Julia Keefe Revives Mildred Bailey.

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