Choctaw trumpeter plays in all-Indigenous big band

By Shelia Kirven
August 1, 2022

An all-Indigenous 16-piece big band had its premiere performance in Olympia, Washington, on May 19 with master trumpeter and Choctaw tribal member Chad Willis. The formation of the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band in the northwest Washington area was possible through a $40,000 grant from donors and foundations striving to keep the arts alive during the Covid pandemic.

The concept of the project was derived by band leader and director Julia Keefe of the Nez Perce Nation, a jazz vocalist, actor, activist, and educator. Keefe searched for 16 Indigenous musicians to be part of the project, and Willis eagerly answered the call.

Band members spent a week rehearsing in Olympia, Washington, with a grand performance at the Olympia Center for Performing Arts. Willis said he was grateful to have had the chance to give back to the Indigenous community. He valued the experience of working with other Indigenous musicians and sharing each other’s cultures and traditions. The band celebrated the Indigenous tradition in music, along with contemporary and traditional works.

Willis said that as a Choctaw tribal member, getting to participate with other Native American and Indigenous musicians from all over the country was very emotional. According to Willis, the musicians smudged before the concert, thanking the ancestors. “It was very fulfilling with my soul to be a part of this.”

Since the project took place during the pandemic, Willis stated it was a challenge but was easier due to special musicians’ protective masks he used where he could slide his mouthpiece into the mask with his mouth still being covered. To further help, there were coverings for the trumpet’s bell as well. He said when he first heard of the coverings, he ordered every type he could find.

The project was just the beginning, according to Willis. After Keefe was awarded the grant to put together the band and the concert, the musicians decided they wanted to play more together, write more music for the group, and get more people involved.

“I think the whole idea is that we want to show that there is a huge history of Indigenous musicians in the jazz community,” Willis said. A documentary is being produced about the band.

No stranger to being a part of a live band, Willis has traveled extensively in 20 countries performing with names such as Lyle Lovett, The Manhattan Transfer, Frankie Valli, and The Platters, only to mention a few performers listed in his biography on

Originally from Texas, Willis earned his bachelor’s degree in jazz performance at the University of North Texas School of Music and then a master’s degree in jazz performance from the University of Southern California. Beginning his career playing on cruise ships, he is now a professor of Brass Studies and Theory and Composition at Fullerton College, Fullerton, California.

He is currently working on some ideas to commission a Choctaw-inspired piece for solo trumpet to a dance in the Choctaw style. He has also been working on trumpet effects, such as with the use of guitar pedals. “Alongside teaching, I have been building a couple of things, and I’m putting together a group and working on new music and am hopeful to start playing with this group and getting videos out and exploring it.”

Willis lives in California with his wife, Christine, and their two-year-old daughter, Sadie. Christine says of her husband, “He has this God-given talent, and he has worked so hard his whole life. I am so proud of him. I want him to be able to do everything he can.”

For more visit the Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band website.