Spokane jazz singer Julia Keefe ready to showcase her skills at Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival

February 23, 2017 GMT

Julia Keefe caught the jazz bug grooving on Billie Holiday – as a toddler.

I know. Weird, huh?

But Keefe, now a seasoned professional jazz singer, swears it’s true.

Her mom, she explained, put on that first Billie CD and the music, for reasons unknown, burrowed deep into her young brain and took root.

“One of my earliest memories was learning the song ‘No More,’ ” said Keefe, 27, who can’t help but laugh at the oddball nature of her story.

“It was stuck in my head throughout my childhood. Really. My childhood was haunted by Billie Holiday.”

A kid could do a whole lot worse. I mean, Lord knows where Keefe would’ve wound up had her toddler mind obsessed over Megadeth, say.

It’s doubtful she’d be invited onto the bill at Moscow’s prestigious Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

Yet that’s where you’ll find Keefe on Saturday.

She’ll be teaching a morning vocal seminar on the art of interpreting jazz standards. That night, Keefe will be be opening for Esperanza Spalding, a four-time Grammy winner, in the Kibbie Activity Center.

(Tickets range from $30 to $120 and can be bought through www.uiadho.edu/ticketoffice or by calling 208-885-7212.)

Not bad, huh?

“It’s like the impossible dream,” said Keefe.

Ten years ago, as a senior year at Gonzaga Prep, Keefe won a solo vocalist award at the Hampton Festival.

Now she’s headed back to Hampton as a seasoned pro with an ever-expanding resume.

The daughter of my friends, Tom Keefe and JoAnn Kauffman, Julia has done everything from singing the national anthem at sporting events to performing jazz in Paris, New York City and even at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (check her out at www.juliakeefe.com).

She spent a year studying musical theater at Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia. In 2012, she graduated (top of her class) from the University of Miami with a degree in Jazz Vocal Performance.

Last year, she got to open for the great Tony Bennett when he came to Spokane. “The coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said Keefe, who now teaches a jazz vocal class at Gonzaga University.

Of all her accomplishments, however, Keefe is best known for her role as a leading interpreter of the music of Mildred Bailey.

If that doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. You’re far from alone.

The husky-voiced Mildred Rinker Bailey was a star back in the 1930s. That’s when the listening public knew her as Mrs. Swing, the first woman to ever front a big band.

The public also knew Bailey as a white jazz singer although that wasn’t the case.

Bailey was a member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe who grew up on the reservation near DeSmet, Idaho.

Keefe, who has her own Nez Perce roots, performs a fantastic tribute to Bailey with the hope of reacquainting the public with this forgotten, though influential, giant.

Bailey, who died in 1951, influenced some of America’s most notable singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and an up-and-coming Spokane crooner named Bing Crosby.

“I just thought that Mildred Bailey’s story was so interesting,” said Keefe. “How many Native American jazz vocalists are there?”

Keefe rightfully considers it a shame that Bailey has never been inducted into the national Jazz Hall of Fame.

Animated and full of humor, Keefe was obviously made for the stage. No wonder one of her mother’s friends declared “she’s got it” when Keefe was a kid.

“It always came naturally to me,” she said of performing. “And I was always such a nerd for jazz.”

Keefe always knew what she wanted. A self-diagnosed old soul, she took vocal lessons and sang with her middle school choir.

By age 15, she was singing with a jazz combo at the old Ella’s club.

But the real change- maker was being able to attend and compete at Hampton, which this year turns 50.

“It’s such a hugely important festival, such a great educational opportunity for young musicians,” said Keefe.

The Hampton festival “was the first time I realized it was a real thing, not hypothetical or a melody stuck in my head.”

And now she’s coming back.

“This is a fan girl’s dream come true,” observed the jazz singer. “It’s gonna be like going home.”