A Sort of Homecoming
February 23, 2017
by Dan Nailen
Julia Keefe admits to being a “jazz nerd” from an early age, listening as a toddler and falling in love with Billie Holiday, “which is weird for a 4-year-old to love.”
Even so, that sound stuck with her as she sang her way through childhood, and she joined the jazz choir at Spokane’s St. George’s School. The choir made its way to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho, a trip with serious long-term repercussions for Keefe, now a renowned vocalist who’s performed in Paris, New York and elsewhere.
“I remember us all driving down there and showing up on a college campus, which of course as a seventh-grader is just the coolest, and being surrounded by like-minded students and their educators,” Keefe says. “Seeing all the other students, everybody wearing their jazz choir uniforms and looking really cool in their slacks and stuff.
“There are so many groups and so many vocalists and so many [instrumental] soloists there that you just sort of marinate in all of this jazz. You hear all these different styles and different approaches to the genre. It really is just an immersion opportunity for students all over the Northwest.”
It’s an opportunity that Keefe grabbed onto tenaciously, especially once she discovered there were solo vocal competitions in addition to the choir showdowns. In eighth grade, she competed solo with little preparation and had what she calls “sort of a humbling experience, but not an experience that deterred me in any way.” Quite the contrary. Through the festival she learned about jazz summer camps and started going to them religiously, honing the songs she would use to compete each year at the festival she refers to simply by its namesake. She competed every year through high school, finally winning as a senior in the Alto Division.
That was 10 years ago. This year, Keefe returns to the Lionel Hampton stage as one of the featured artists in Saturday night’s grand finale concert, singing with the Lionel Hampton Big Band.
“It’s really cool to look back over the evolution of myself through Lionel Hampton,” says Keefe, now teaching music at Gonzaga. “It inspired me to pursue jazz as a solo vocalist. Without it, I’d probably be a lawyer or something.”
The festival has had a similar effect, if not necessarily the same professional results, for thousands of students in its 50 years. The three-day event will host 400 student performances and about 100 workshops, clinics and concerts on the UI campus, which will host about 4,200 students from 133 different schools in the Northwest this year.
In its 50 years, the Lionel Hampton festival has hosted a number of huge names in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn, for concerts and workshops. This year’s festivities include evening shows featuring Grammy-winning bass master Esperanza Spalding as well as New York Voices and René Marie.
Keefe recalls the evening concerts as some of the highlights of her experiences as a student at the festival.
“Seeing all these amazing vocalists and instrumentalists up there, just doing what they do best and having the best time ever” really left an impression, Keefe says. “I was like, ‘Wow, someday, I hope I can do that.'”
Those concerts, and interacting with musicians — the beginners like her, and the visiting professionals sharing their experience — gave Keefe the direction that led her to graduating with honors from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and later singing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of the American Indian (Keefe is a Nez Perce tribal member) as part of the Smithsonian’s National Jazz Appreciation Month.
None of that, she says, would have been possible without that first trip to this festival. “It inspired me,” Keefe says.
“It wasn’t some far-fetched dream at Lionel Hampton. It was something that was attainable if you worked hard enough. It can happen.”