About Jean: Biographical Overview
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Jean's first exposure to music was classical piano and choral music as a child in the Southern Baptist Church. Her jazz career didn't begin in earnest until much later in her life, at age 30 after seven years of marriage. A quick study, Jean's vocal style reflected the influence of blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who she cited as constant inspirations.
From those fateful beginnings accompanying former husband Ed Kittrell, Jean found herself singing her way across the country, later becoming known as “America’s First Lady of Jazz” and the “Red Hot Mama of Dixieland.” First in Chicago with Ed, and then on the Mississippi riverboats like the Delta Queen and Lt. Robert E. Lee, Jean performed traditional or Dixieland jazz, blues, and gospel, all with her signature barrelhouse piano. For much of her over 40-year career, Jean resided in Edwardsville, Illinois, leading and managing her three bands (the Jazz Incredibles, St. Louis Rivermen, and Old St. Louis Levee Band) while teaching in and later chairing the Department of English at SIUE. Retiring from jazz performance in 2008, Jean left the leadership of her bands to sousaphonist David "Red" Lehr and his wife Caroline Lehr. Jean passed away in August of 2018, but her legacy lives on in many ways.