While many knew Jean Kittrell as a musician or professor, family was also of utmost importance over the course of her life. Growing up in Alabama, Jean had an older brother and two supportive parents. Later, as she began a family of her own, she had two daughters, Rebecca and Camille, whom she did her best to raise even while juggling separate careers in jazz performance and academia. The photograph you see here of Jean’s two daughters and parents, taken in 1966, was one that she kept in her kitchen for many years as a cherished memory.
From a very young age, music was a part of Jean’s life. Her mother, Dorothy Ethel Clark McCarty, and father, David McCarty, allowed her to take piano lessons near their home in Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up. The photograph to the right shows Jean at age five at one of her piano recitals. In addition to learning classical piano, Jean also sang and played piano in the Southern Baptist Church. These musical interests carried her through to college, where she majored in music theory. Throughout it all, her parents remained supportive. A grateful Jean is quoted in a 2012 Edwardsville Intelligencer article as saying, “They just loved me and encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do.” When her brother, David McCarty Jr., was shot down in his plane during World War II, Jean notes that her parents could have “smothered her with protectiveness,” yet they encouraged their only daughter to follow her dreams.
Starting to Swing
When majoring in music theory at Blue Mountain College in Mississippi, Jean had no idea that by the late 1960s she would begin a 40-year jazz career. Like many young women during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jean Kittrell was thinking about marriage and starting a family. After marrying economics professor Dr. Ed Kittrell, Jean got a surprise request. After seven years of marriage, she was shocked to learn that Ed played trumpet and wanted to start playing jazz. She agreed to help by accompanying him on piano until, in her words, he could “find a professional accompanist.”
In the beginning, living in Norfolk, Virginia, while Ed taught at the local William and Mary College, he would invite students to their house to jam, bringing in dozens and sometimes as many as one hundred young musicians with instruments of all kinds. Shortly after, Jean and Ed got a few musicians together to form the Chesapeake Bay Jass Band. The spelling, of course, linked to the traditional jazz the band played and the original spelling of jazz as “jass” – from the Original Dixieland Jass Band that began in 1917. The band, pictured to the left, performed frequently on the beach, with Jean sometimes taking a portable two-octave piano in tow. A fond memory from the Chesapeake Bay Jass Band’s time together for Jean was when they played “Happy Birthday” for Louis Armstrong in nearby Virginia Beach, Virginia. At that time, Jean remembers, they were such a new band that they had never played the tune, yet they did it anyway, embracing the improvisatory nature of their music and the situation. In the photograph below, Jean and Ed are pictured with Louis Armstrong and his band, including Armstrong’s wife Lucille Wilson.
After the Kittrell family moved to Chicago, Jean and Ed joined the Chicago Stompers, going to Germany for a month-long performing tour in 1959. A photo from that tour, with Jean pictured at the far right in one of her signature fringe dresses, is seen to the right. During their time in Chicago, both Jean and Ed studied at the University of Chicago. Finally, Jean moved to southern Illinois where she began teaching, first general composition at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale while she finished her doctoral degree, and later at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Jean agreed when Don Franz, a jazz musician from her days in the Chicago Stompers, invited her to play at the new Old Levee House on Wharf Street in St. Louis, Missouri. After a week with Franz accompanying on banjo, Jean Kittrell was on her own, playing piano and singing on Friday and Saturday nights for two years. She was well on her way to becoming known as the “Red Hot Mama of Dixieland.”
A Mother’s Love
Throughout her early years performing solo and with the Jazz Incredibles on the Lt. Robert E. Lee, Jean Kittrell was balancing her two careers with life as a single mother, having divorced after twelve years. With the help of a housekeeper to watch her two girls, Rebecca and Camille, while she performed nightly on weekends, Jean maintained strong relationships with her daughters. Their loving relationships are reflected well in the August 1983 article from J-Magazine, “A Day in the Life of: Jean Kittrell.” The article, shown below in full and also available in text-searchable PDF transcription by clicking on it to view the full item record, reads:
“[…]I remember Mother’s Day. Rebecca had put flowers for me in every room of the house. The whole house. Filled with flowers.” She spreads her arms to embrace house and memory. Her eyes sparkle, moist with emotion. “She had not bought them,” she continues with a wide smile. “She picked them up behind the nursery where they put the discards that aren’t quite good enough to sell anymore. They were still good flowers, you understand, just not good enough to sell. Now, that is love. Not a name signed under a bought card. The whole house full of flowers! It was lovely.”
The love which Rebecca expressed with a houseful of flowers on Mother’s Day comes from Camille in a college essay that fell out of her writing portfolio.[…]The essay was written for a school writing assignment. It described Jean in a character profile. Despite its factual, unemotional journalistic style, it is in content a love poem. Only near the end, when describing Jean’s strength at the funeral of Camille’s sister, does the author admit that “Jean” is her mother.
“I believe some people are born lucky,” Jean says. “I was lucky. Am lucky. Lucky to have been born into a warm family. Lucky to have had so much love.”
Jean’s daughter Rebecca passed away in 1980 from suicide due to mental illness. Jean channeled grief into activism, later in her career holding a video recorded concert to benefit Independence Center, a mental health service group to which Rebecca had belonged. Following her parents’ example after her brother’s death, Jean “[did] not cling to” her elder daughter Camille, now an acclaimed global consultant on yoga therapy for cancer, but the two remained close despite physical distance until Jean’s passing.