Spokane Jazz Orchestra Presents Keleren Millham: I Had ‘Lost My Life’

For singer Keleren Millham, recent experience has proven time and time again that sometimes you have to lose big to win big.

Returning to the stage after two years of canceled concerts and an ongoing battle with shingles that nearly ended her career, Millham will join the Spokane Jazz Orchestra for an evening of songs celebrating life, rebirth and the Great American Songbook. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Bing Crosby Theater.

After Millham unexpectedly came down with shingles in October 2019, the virus quickly progressed from her eyes to her ears and down her spine. The symptoms brought everyone to a standstill.

The smallest tasks suddenly became debilitating, and her sensitivity to everyday stimuli made isolation the best option. So, as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, very little has changed, at least in that regard.

To some extent, Millham explained, the pandemic has almost normalized his experience.

“I couldn’t walk or talk or sing, but I could tell I lost my gigs to COVID,” she said. In a way, she had “lost her life”, but so had everyone. “It was a way for me to rationalize it – it affected everyone.”

Today, after months of taking two steps forward and one step back, Millham has finally reached a level of health, both vocally and otherwise, where she is comfortable performing.

Waiting for his brain to heal took a long time. After all, she says, not so long ago the sound of applause, brass instruments and a host of other stimuli were too much for her to process.

“In the thick of it, I had a spoon, and as I tried to bring the spoon to my mouth…the rest of my brain was like, ‘No, it’s dangerous. We’re not going to let that happen,” she said.

“Even now, the fact that I can talk…without stuttering or my body shaking…it’s still kind of miraculous.”

The virus has changed the way she perceives sound. But even in the face of the lingering neurological issues, Millham wouldn’t change a thing. Relearning her craft, she says, has made all the difference.

“I don’t necessarily think things happen for a reason, but I will seek to find meaning,” she said. When her condition first manifested, she made no effort to slow down. “I’m a bit of a push through girl – or at least I was.”

She followed her instincts and held on until it was impossible to hold on.

“Being a musician – that’s my identity as a human being,” she said. “So not knowing if I would ever get that back was probably a very precious thing to go through.”

Now, instead of pushing, Millham has moved his technique to ‘bend over’.

“Everything I’ve been through so far has prepared me to really be with it and embrace it and learn to bend over…to honor my body,” she said. And, as she continues to heal, her work, it seems, has paid off.

“My voice was so clear last night that I would much rather (keep) that level of physical discomfort and be able to be with music and experience music and collaborate and explore,” said she declared. “I had so much joy last night.”

The concert, titled “The Great American Songbook: Then and Now,” will feature a variety of jazz classics and future classics, including several new arrangements prepared by Music Director Don Goodwin and four other musicians from the Spokane Jazz Orchestra.

The concert was originally scheduled for May 2020, postponed, canceled and now finally rescheduled. As Millham and Goodwin collaborated on the concert program, Millham felt impelled to focus on pieces with an uplifting message.

Inspired by her experience of “re-entering life” and “a realization of COVID…I chose songs about rebirth, feeling comfortable in the unknown, and rediscovering yourself with the positive.”

For more information, visit spokanejazz.org and bingcrosbytheatre.com.


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Henry R. Wright