This story has been updated to note the Hoonah concert by the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band is on Sunday, not Friday.
Ed Littlefield’s heritage has inspired the narration of a musical “A Tlingit Christmas Carol” and his Native Jazz Quartet to serve as “jazz ambassadors” in South America, so getting together with Indigenous musicians from throughout the Americas for a big band gig is just a natural combining of worlds.
“The connection between Indigenous jazz musicians is strong,” the drummer originally from Sitka said in a phone interview Wednesday from Seattle, where he now lives. However, “there’s not a lot of them.”
Sixteen such musicians were set to take the stage Friday night at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall for the opening concert of the year’s Juneau Jazz & Classics spring festival by the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band. Littlefield joined the band’s inaugural concert last year in Olympia, Washington, when he was contacted by Keefe, a New York singer who formed the ensemble, and quickly discovered a group much like — yet different — than himself.
“It’s a big family that we didn’t know we had,” said Littlefield, who’s frequently performed in a wide range of Juneau gigs ranging from Perseverance Theatre productions to Juneau Symphony concerts.
The festival schedule also includes a free concert by the big band Saturday afternoon at the University of Alaska Southeast that overlaps with commencement weekend, and a small jazz ensemble concert and jam session led by Keefe during two nights at the Crystal Saloon. The big band is also scheduled to perform in Hoonah on Sunday afternoon.
Other scheduled performers for the festival that continues until May 13 include concert pianist Awadagin Pratt, Phil Wiggins’ Blues House Party, classical clarinetist James Logan, and cellist Zuill Bailey who as the festival’s music director chose the musicians who are appearing.
Keefe, who grew up on a reservation in Idaho before becoming a nationally acclaimed performer during the past 15 years, lured Indigenous musicians whose cultures span from Canada to South America for the big band’s premiere in May of last year. It was also the formation of a bigger “family” network that currently consists of about 50 musicians.
“There was a huge outreach we did to create a huge network of indigenous jazz musicians,” she said during a phone interview Thursday. “What’s wonderful is I’m getting emails from people who are retired saying ‘I used to play jazz all the time’ to teens in rural Oklahoma.”
That’s an advantage when staging the intermittent big band gigs, since getting performers to come from all over a continent to a specific location on a specific day is a lot like planning a destination wedding. For the Juneau concert festival officials got help from a dozen local organizations providing airline tickets, funding and other assistance, but Keefe said some improvising taking advantage of available resources — such as local Tlingit musician Ken Truitt who will sit in for some of the performance — is typically necessary.
“There were a lot of musicians from our original gig in Olympia and some unfortunately were not able to make it, but because we created such a large network in our initial outreach I was able in to reach out to other musicians,” she said.
A similar spirit of spontaneity exists among the musicians during the concert since there’s typically little time to rehearse beforehand, Littlefield said. But he said as a freelance musician he’s frequently in such situations and it’s a common “family” trait with the big band.
“We don’t get a lot of time to rehearse, but everyone’s really well prepared when they get here,” he said.
The playlist consists of a few jazz standards by Native American stalwarts such as Mildred Bailey (“who was the first ‘girl singer’ to front a jazz big band in the late 1920s”) and 1960s saxophonist Jim Pepper. But Keefe said most of the songs are originals by band members that reflect both their differing tribal experiences and cultures, as well as shared similarities such as those who grew up on reservations.
“I think what we bring to the jazz world is that tradition of storytelling through music that is an integral part of traditional culture,” she said. “The idea of improvisation is to get deeper into the music, which can be a spiritual practice…songs have been prayers for people since time immemorial.”
A different side of Keefe will be showcased when she appears with a quintet of other musicians at Crystal Saloon for a jazz gig from 7-9 p.m.
“With the big band there is of course a lot more structure, the arrangements are more set,” she said. “Within the smaller ensemble it’s a lot more loose. What I do as a jazz vocalist is lean a lot more into the standards, but within the group there’s the opportunity to explore Indigenous melodies within a free jazz context.”
Keefe and her quintet are also scheduled to host a free jam session open to local musicians at the saloon from 8-10 p.m. Monday.
Getting the Indigenous musicians to come to Juneau — and stay for a few days doing activities such as workshops with students in addition to the concerts — ended up being a tag team effort between Juneau Jazz & Classics and the Áak’w Rock Music Festival, said Taylor Vidic, production manager of the latter event that features a variety of Indigenous musical genres. She said she and other Áak’w Rock officials met Keefe at an event last year after the big band’s Olympia concert, which led to discussions about a Juneau appearance.
“It seems like a beautiful mix to bring together,” Vidic said.
Keefe and other band members are scheduled to start arriving Thursday, and Friday morning will host workshops where they perform and then answer students’ questions at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School. Littlefield, who engages in such workshops as a regular part of his work, said his heritage adds to the lessons he can pass on to youths.
“What I love about being an Indigenous person doing a clinic is they’re seeing anything is possible,” he said.
Local Tlingit students have also passed on their culture to visiting musicians at previous festivals by, for instance, sharing music lessons taught in their Alaska Native language. Littlefield said he’s hoping a similar shared experience is possible with other band members during their visit to Juneau and Hoonah.
“What I’m really hoping to do if we have some outreach is to meet some Tlingit members,” he said. “Alaska is far away from a lot of people’s knowledge.”
The other festival concerts, as usual, range from free lunchtime sets to a scenic music cruise. Both of those will be performed by Wiggins toward the end of the festival as he performs a Brown Bag Concert at noon Friday, May 12, in the State Office Building, and then hosts a blues cruise from 8-10 p.m. that night that launches from Stattler Harbor in Auke Bay. He will also perform a blues dance concert from 7-8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 13, at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall to close out the festival.