Bing Crosby is jazz royalty in his hometown of Spokane but few people know much about him besides a few classic Christmas songs.It turns out Crosby’s fate was tied to the lives of two other Spokane-area jazz musicians, Al Rinker and his sister, Mildred Bailey. Without them it’s possible Crosby wouldn’t be a household name.
“As a traditional jazz musician I noticed my town didn’t know who these people were. Bing, yes, but not the others,” said Garrin Hertel of Spokane. “I thought, we need to fix this.
They’re a big part of our history locally and they have a fantastic story.”
Hertel made the documentary “Now You Has Jazz,” about the trio. The film will be presented Friday in Lewiston during a live concert of their music by Hot Club of Spokane. Featured singers include Nez Perce tribal member Julia Keefe and Crosby’s nephew, Howard Crosby, who knew his uncle well.
“We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of Bing as this successful person who was bigger than life but he just started out as this troublemaking kid in Spokane, Washington and he really was. He had a wholesome image but he was a bit of a scoundrel, an early rock star,” Hertel said.
Mildred Rinker Bailey was born in Tekoa in 1907 and was part Coeur d’Alene Indian. Her family moved to Spokane and when she was a young woman she left to seek her fortune in Los Angeles. She became one of the most sought after performers of the jazz era. Credited with being the first woman to sing before a swing band she was called Queen of Swing.
Bailey was three years older than Bing Crosby and six years older than her brother Al, Bing’s friend. The two penniless young men left Spokane in the 1920s to visit her.
“I don’t think Bing and Al had the idea ‘we’re going to make it big’ when they set off to Los Angeles; they were just going to see what Mildred was up to,” Hertel said.
Bailey secured entertainment jobs for them. With rare photos, archival film footage and storytelling segments, Hertel shows how their careers bloomed. The show features 20 songs they became known for performed live.
Spokane singer Julia Keefe was drawn to the singer because of their shared connection to reservation life. Keefe, 26, spent her childhood in Kamiah and Kooskia on the Nez Perce Reservation. She created a Mildred Bailey tribute show, singing at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2009, and was the force behind an Idaho proclamation declaring April 30, 2012, Mildred Bailey Day. She is working to get the singer inducted into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at New York City’s Lincoln Center.
“As a native American woman in the entertainment industry, it’s not very often we have these heavy-hitter players that change the face of an art form and Mildred Bailey is one of these people,” said Keefe, who is pursuing an acting and singing career and teaches jazz vocals performance at Gonzaga University.
Bailey died at age 44. Hertel thinks one of the reasons she is not more famous is that there is no known video of her. He hopes the film will help audiences rediscover the three artists.
“When you see a documentary about a music star you always want to go listen to their music. So we’ve combined the two to give people a more rich experience, to tell the story in a more innovative way,” Hertel said.
What: “Now You Has Jazz”
When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 1
Where: Lewiston High School auditorium
Tickets: $15 general admission, $12 students and seniors, $45 family of four