Jean Kittrell’s jazz career is vast, spanning more than 40 years and multiple continents. She led three distinct bands at the same time, managing set lists, gig schedules, stage layouts, and more. Before that, Jean performed with a number of jazz greats in St. Louis and began her career as a solo artist at the Old Levee House on Wharf Street. Continue reading below to learn about the incredible story of Jean, the “untypical Southern Belle” from Birmingham, Alabama, who got her start on the beaches of Chesapeake Bay playing a two-octave piano.
Groups: The Early Years
Using skills gained from her music theory degree, Jean began her foray into jazz with husband Ed Kittrell, first in Norfolk, Virginia with their group, the Chesapeake Bay Jass Band, and then in Chicago, Illinois, for a short time with the Chicago Stompers. When Jean moved with her two daughters near Carbondale, Illinois to finish her doctorate, jazz was not in her immediate plans. Yet former Chicago Stompers member Don Franz invited her to play at the Old Levee House, and it wasn’t long before performers in southern Illinois and the St. Louis area heard about Jean’s talent. In 1966, she made her first recording, a set of blues tunes with Tony Parenti and his Blue Blues Blowers. Not long after, in the early 1970s, Jean Kittrell was recording with Dan Havens’ Mississippi Mudcats and the Boll Weevil Jass Band.
Much of Jean’s vocal inspiration came from gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and blues singers like Bessie Smith. Yet her unique individual sound, inspired by those great ladies of jazz, is all her own. The example above, taken from her 1974 solo album Alone, showcases her talent for songful storytelling, dynamicism, and drama.
When she was first invited by Don Franz to play at the newly opened Old Levee House on Wharf Street in 1967, Jean realized she had a lot of catching up to do. Though she had played with jazz bands before, Franz and Old Levee House owner Frank Pearson were asking her to perform as a soloist. Shocked, Jean accepted, though she had Don Franz’s help on banjo her first week. In an interview with jazz radio host Dennis Owsley, she recalls “It was a good experience for me…I realized that I had never learned many tunes all the way through…I never remembered the bridges.[…]As a matter of fact, I had to write out a lot of melodies and put that bridge up in front of me.”
After those first few challenging weeks, Jean performed every Friday and Saturday night at the Old Levee House for two years, flying solo and enjoying every minute of it. Hear about it in her own words in the oral history interview clip below.
During Jean’s time at the Old Levee House, as well as performing at other local venues such as the St. Louis Ragtime Festivals held annually on the Goldenrod Showboat, she had the opportunity to meet many famous jazz musicians. These include New Orleans jazz musician Edmond “Doc” Souchon, ragtime pianist Max Morath, and Dixieland trombonist George Brunies. Jean also met many musicians with whom she would later collaborate, such as clarinetist Glenn Meyer and, of course, David “Red” Lehr. Signed publicity photos given to her by some of these musicians, with whom she became fast friends, are pictured in the gallery below. Click on a thumbnail to view the full-sized image.
In addition to teaching at SIUE and leading her bands, Jean also found time for additional collaborations, notably with the Old Guys Jazz Band. The Old Guys, which included faculty members from SIUE, were instrumental in providing support for the founding of the National Ragtime & Jazz Archive at SIUE’s Lovejoy Library, for which they recorded three albums to help raise funds. Jean performed and recorded regularly with the Old Guys, who performed mainly traditional jazz genres including Dixieland, ragtime, and spirituals. Two examples from their album Jazz on Campus, can be heard below.
Groups: Leader of the Band
Of course, Jean was most well known as the bandleader of the Jazz Incredibles, Old St. Louis Levee Band, and St. Louis Rivermen, the former two of which performed regularly aboard the Lt. Robert E. Lee Showboat and Restaurant from 1978-1990. To truly get to know Jean’s bands and their story, we have to go back to the beginning.
Jean Kittrell had just performed with banjo virtuoso John Becker for a St. Louis Jazz Club banquet, hitting it off so well that John mentioned knowing a bass player (Bill Houston) that would round out their duo into the perfect trio. Thus, the predecessor to the Jazz Incredibles, the Blues Emporium, was born. Their first gig was as a two-week stint performing aboard the Lt. Robert E. Lee, a floating restaurant and showboat docked on the Mississippi, while the regular band took their vacation. Bassist Bill Houston retired after four years performing together, mostly aboard the Lt. Robert E. Lee. Sousaphonist David “Red” Lehr took his place, performing with the group during their regular Friday night gigs as well as their ever-growing schedule of festival performances. Performing aboard the Lt. Robert E. Lee was an exciting and interesting time, to hear Jean tell it. The audio clip below, from Jean’s oral history interview, features Jean, Red, and Red’s wife Carolyn reminiscing about some of the stranger challenges the Jazz Incredibles encountered while performing on a showboat.
The story of how the Jazz Incredibles got their name is equally as interesting. According to Jean, after “months passed, and night after night [John and Red] played beautiful, unique, often astounding improvisations” on stage aboard the Lt. Robert E. Lee, she realized she was working with two world-class musicians. John and Red were incredible, and she found it incredible to be able to play piano with them. The name stuck, and Jean wasn’t the only one to notice that they had something special, as you can hear in the audio clip below of Red discussing just what made the group so unique.
Later in the group’s history, Noel Kaletsky was added on clarinet and soprano saxophone, making the trio a quartet. The band continued to perform at jazz festivals across the nation until Jean’s retirement in 2008, sometimes even adding drummer Don Schroeder to the mix. Both Kaletsky and Schroeder later went on to play in Red Lehr’s Powerhouse Five, which still performs today.
The Old St. Louis Levee Band quintet also had their start with Jean aboard the Lt. Robert E. Lee, performing on Saturday nights. After John Becker’s retirement in 2002, the quintet typically consisted of Pat Arana on trombone, David “Red” Lehr on sousaphone, Bobby Grimm on banjo, and Rick Schaumberger on drums, complimenting Jean’s skills at the piano and on vocals. In addition to their Saturday night gig, Jean arranged for the group to tour across the Midwest and internationally. One particular highlight was performing on a 10-day Mediterranean cruise and tour of Italy with the Tenth Avenue Jazz Band in 1990. The Old St. Louis Levee Band, or OSLLB, recorded many albums as well, a high point being their Plays the Blues album, excerpted below. In addition to their standard personnel, the Old St. Louis Levee Band, along with the Jazz Incredibles, appeared in pops concerts with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Honolulu Symphony, both conducted by Richard Hayman.
Jean’s St. Louis Rivermen had a different start, beginning in 1982 per the request of Frank Maloney, the president of the St. Louis Jazz Club at the time. Frank told Jean that she would lead the band, much to Jean’s initial chagrin. In 2006, Jean was singing a different tune, grateful for what according to her was “a 24-year chore, responsibility, and privilege.” As a seven piece group that performed throughout the national jazz festival circuit, often with repeat performances at major festivals, the St. Louis Rivermen had some personnel changes. Forming the core of the group in 2006 were David “Red” Lehr on sousaphone and Jean Kittrell on piano and vocals, as always, along with Jazz Incredibles clarinetist Noel Kaletsky, Bobby Grimm on banjo, Steve Lilley on cornet and trumpet, Jack Tartar on drums, and Jim Maihack on trombone. Frequent substitutions at festival performances and some recordings included Eric Sager on clarinet, Don Schroeder on drums, and Brett Stamps on trombone, who became a more frequent member of the band in later years.
In addition to multiple recordings, including the Out of the Gate album sampled above, the St. Louis Rivermen were also featured on a number of JazzSea cruises, bringing Jean’s time performing on the water full circle. This time though, it was the sunny Caribbean she and her band played to, rather than the mighty Mississippi.