Spokane's Julia Keefe Jazzes It Up

Spokane's Julia Keefe Jazzes It Up
Julia Keefe, Photo Credit: Chris Wooley

In my two decades of work I have observed two characteristics that draw individual artists towards success in the creative industry.  

The first is intuitive - you have to be good, really good.  

The second is, you have to own your path:  the challenges, the reasons for celebration—all of it, and recognize what you know and what you don't. Jazz musician Julia Keefe throws herself into her work, whether it is comfortable or not.  She says 'yes' then figures it out. There are only a few people who I have met who I have immediately known make a meaningful contribution. She is one in a million. You will see her name in lights one day.

Tell me about your business practice.

My business practice has two parts: improving on my skills as a musician and creating a community of people around me who not only believe in what I do but are also interested in collaborating and resource sharing.  

I started gigging in my early teens—my first paycheck was from a jazz gig at Ella's Supper Club when I was 14. At that time jazz was something that I was super passionate about but didn't realize that I could pursue it professionally.  

Washington has such a wealth of resources through festivals and education. I was fortunate to grow up in a community that was thriving on its own as a jazz scene, and to have mentors, teachers, and colleagues who encouraged me and who helped grow the fire. It wasn't until later in my teen years that I decided I could pursue it. It was my connections with the jazz scene in Spokane that allowed me to blossom as a jazz musician. 

I love that I come back and forth from NYC to Washington, and that there is a home for me in both places—new musicians, new venues, and new opportunities for growth.  

Just last night I did a jam session with Imagine Jazz. Rachel Bade McMurphy has created a huge network of jazz lovers and students. She brings in people who are pillars of the jazz world for workshops and performances, making Spokane a part of the touring scene. I love that I am a part of both communities—the Manhattan scene and my home in eastern Washington.

Photo Credit: Jesse Tinsley

Talk to me about your road to finding sustainability through your arts practice and business.

It is all about finding mentors and allies inside and outside of the arts community and cultural community.  There are so many people who want to see you succeed; if you don’t already know them, you must find them.  

Creating that network of allies is key to success within any art form. Each person is a gateway into a whole other world of collaborations, connection, and opportunities. 

One of the things during COVID times that I have been able to do is connect with Native leaders and musicians. It has been such a thrill for me to foster that network. This has already led to new projects and performances and will hopefully continue to create connections. I feel like I am truly learning a new and better way to hustle for the next gig.  

What I am excited for as a business owner is that I am really learning to find sustainability by taking ownership of my media, branding, funding, and outreach. It has been a process learning how to advocate for myself rather than waiting for opportunities to come to me.  

I think it is so interesting—I feel like growing up, the motto in my head was: "take what you can get,” not even what you need. I am finally beginning to get over that mental hurdle.   

When I got into the graduate program at Manhattan School of Music, I finally arrived at the conclusion: "I have earned this."  I am earning the things that I am getting and I am a valuable addition to every performance and engagement. It requires some mental rewiring to finally take your space in the world and not apologize for it, but it is absolutely worth it.

Talk to me about what you see in Spokane: what do you see that excites you?

Photo Credit: Jesse Tinsley

I have talked about Imagine Jazz, an amazing group that is infusing a deeply rooted legacy of jazz into the Spokane scene. The work that Rachel is doing gets me really excited.  

There is a huge influx of independent artists in the Spokane area and some great artist organizations that are popping up, such as Terrain which has provided a great venue for all sorts of artists.   

Also, One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival, which I help to run, supports Indigenous stories from Indigenous perspectives. One Heart is bringing important stories to broader audiences, highlighting the beauty and vitality of Indigenous culture in the Northwest.  

These stories are raw, vulnerable, and valuable.  They are meant to stir something deep within the viewer or listener. I believe what we do as artists is prophetic work: to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. I am thrilled there are more and more organizations in Spokane, and in Washington as well, doing exactly that.

Talk to me about Mildred Bailey—what should folks around Washington know about her?

Mildred Bailey was the first woman to sing in front of a big band in the late 1920s. Her radical step to the forefront of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra altered the soundscape of jazz forever.  

She was also a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, was born in Tekoa, WA, and spent her teen years in Spokane and Seattle. It has been my mission since first learning of her to have her inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center for her contributions to the evolution of jazz.  

While she has not been inducted yet, her story and music has been amplified for jazz lovers and Indigenous people alike. People in Washington should know about her, know her music, and know her importance in this all-American artform.  

Furthermore, the fact that a First American was also the first woman singing in front of a big band is a huge feat and something Indigenous people in the region should be incredibly proud of.  We have a place in this music too.

you may also enjoy