Around the World with Jean Kittrell

Jean Kittrell and her bands traveled far and wide throughout her career, not only in the Midwest or United States, but around the world. Use the map to explore some of the many places Jean has performed, and the souvenirs she took home along the way.

Jean Kittrell in Self-Designed Dress, 2002

Jean in Self-Designed Dress, 2002

Jean’s Dress Saves the Day

Not only was Jean Kittrell famous for her barrelhouse piano and irreverent vocal performances, incorporating humor and her characteristic smile wherever she went, but she also never performed anywhere without her signature fringe dresses. She even made many of her early dresses herself. Later, teaching at SIUE while performing on weekend nights, she continued to design some of her dresses, sending them to a tailor to be made. The dress shown in the photo to the right and in detail below was a particular favorite of Jean’s. Half fringe and half sequins, it is now in the Jean Kittrell Collection housed at the National Ragtime and Jazz Archive. Closer to retirement, Jean continued to wear her signature style in the form of fringe shirts, opting for color-matched pants rather than short dresses. But where did it all start?

Self-Designed Black Fringe and Sequin Dress, Undated

Jean was wearing fringe long before she met the other two members of the Jazz Incredibles, David “Red” Lehr and John Becker. One event stood out in Jean’s memory, recounted in her photo elicitation interview as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles throughout the years. During their first international tour, the Jazz Incredibles found themselves backstage at a large venue in Breda, Netherlands, set to follow a sixteen-piece big band with two singers. The Jazz Incredibles were “scared to death” of having to follow such an impressive band, especially considering all the complicated arrangements they were hearing from backstage. In one newspaper article, Jean discloses, “I always wore fringe and I bounced when I played and thank goodness for that fringe. The three of us played the best we every played. We got a standing ovation and cheering. They didn’t do that for the big band.” 

While it may have been the group’s musical ingenuity and not Jean’s fringe that won the audience over, who’s to say for sure? After all, she certainly never played without it since that fateful day in Breda. To hear Jean Kittrell and Red Lehr reminisce about their feelings from that day backstage, click on the audio below.