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Originally published Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 3:32 AM

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Idaho tribe touts 'Mrs. Swing's' Indian roots

Mildred Rinker Bailey was known to fans as "Mrs. Swing," whose slight, throaty voice won her acclaim as one of the great white jazz singers of the 1930s and 1940s

Associated Press

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BOISE, Idaho —

Mildred Rinker Bailey was known to fans as "Mrs. Swing," whose slight, throaty voice won her acclaim as one of the great white jazz singers of the 1930s and 1940s

But the Coeur d'Alene Indian Tribe is now hoping to set the record straight once and for all: Bailey, who died impoverished in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1951, was an American Indian who spent her childhood on the reservation near DeSmet, Idaho.

This week, the tribe introduced a resolution honoring Bailey in the Idaho Legislature, in part to convince the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame in New York City to add her to its inductees - on grounds she helped blaze a trail for better-known singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

"Mildred was a pioneer," said Coeur d'Alene Tribal Chairman Chief J. Allan. "She paved the way for many other female singers to follow."

Though Bailey's Coeur d'Alene ties may not have been common knowledge among her fans, it clearly wasn't a secret.

"Part Indian, she was born Mildred Rinker on a farm near Spokane," reads her Associated Press obituary, dated Dec. 13, 1951.

Still, in jazz history books, Bailey has gone down largely as a white female jazz stylist.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz hails her as "the first white singer to absorb and master the jazz-flavored phrasing...of her black contemporaries."

Howard Koslow, the illustrator who created Bailey's likeness on a 29-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp based on an image by iconic jazz photographer William Gottlieb, said he had only that brief New Grove entry as a reference.

But his depiction of Bailey's dark complexion and black hair, for the stamp issued in a series honoring jazz and blues musicians, appears to capture her complex heritage.

"She has that look about her," Koslow recalled Tuesday in an interview from his Toms River, N.J., home.

Bailey was born Feb. 16, 1900, in the Washington farming town of Tekoa, near the Idaho border.

Her mother was a Coeur d'Alene tribal member, her father of Swiss-Irish stock.

At 13, she moved from the reservation to Spokane, where a neighbor destined to become world famous as "Bing" Crosby joined Bailey and her brother, Al Rinker, at the family's piano. Al Rinker and Crosby formed the group "The Rhythm Boys."

By the mid-1920s, all three were singing in California; in 1929, Crosby recommended to famous orchestra leader Paul Whiteman he add Bailey as a regular.

"I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life," Crosby wrote in his 1953 autobiography. "I learned a lot from her."

So has Julia Keefe, a 22-year-old jazz singer from Spokane.

Keefe, a member of Idaho's Nez Perce Indian Tribe, discovered Bailey as a student at Spokane's Gonzaga Prep, while researching Crosby's own time at the Catholic high school.

"It took off like a flash flood," remembers Keefe, now a performance major at the University of Miami with Bailey's photograph hanging on her Florida apartment wall.

In 2009, Keefe performed a musical tribute featuring Bailey's songs, including "Old Rockin' Chair" and "He's Not Worth Your Tears," at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

A year later, Keefe was touring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame, pondering the greats on its 18-foot video wall when she asked herself, "Where's Mildred?"

Thus began her quiet effort to elevate Bailey's profile in the modern jazz world, a push the Idaho Legislature hopes to assist.

"It's sad to think she died penniless, or nearly penniless, after all the things that she accomplished," said Rep. Bob Nonini, a sponsor of resolution. "But it's never too late to recognize somebody."

Lincoln Center officials didn't immediately respond to an AP request for comment.

An important question remains: How important were Bailey's Indian roots to her art?

An undated quotation, attributed to her by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994, hints at an answer.

"I don't know whether this (Indian) music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable training and background," Bailey reportedly said.

Bailey's niece, Julia Rinker-Miller, a Los Angeles-based singer whose credits include the "Three's Company" theme, was seven in 1951 when her aunt died in a Hudson Valley hospital, from complications of diabetes and obesity; Frank Sinatra reportedly helped pay her medical bills.

"Even though she was large, she was delicate, very exotic, sensual," Rinker-Miller recalled during an interview Tuesday.

From her father, Rinker-Miller heard stories of how they were called "breeds" after moving from the Coeur d'Alene reservation to Spokane.

Consequently, he downplayed his own American Indian background, she said.

She figures Bailey was forced to do likewise during her career - possibly why she became known as a white artist.

"Mildred's returning to her roots," Rinker-Miller said, of the tribe's effort to reclaim Bailey. "She's going home."

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