Jean's Jazz: Barrelhouse
Known both as “America’s First Lady of Jazz” and the “Red Hot Mama of Dixieland,” Jean immersed herself in the music of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and other famous female vocalists of the early twentieth century. Most of Jean’s inspiration came from these great ladies of blues and gospel, and this influence is clearly heard in the audio clip below from her solo album, Alone, recorded in 1974. The song excerpted in this clip is “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon.” It not only illustrates her vocal style, but also the slight irreverence found in many blues songs that Jean embraced.
Besides being a jazz performer, Jean Kittrell was also a jazz scholar, writing and studying about the history of jazz music, including the various styles within. This academic approach allowed her a depth of understanding that many performers only hope for. Below are some definitions of the sub-genres Jean regularly performed, as well as an explanation of her unique style of jazz piano. These definitions are based on her own scholarly writing, Black Roots of Our American Music, which she published in 1971.
In Jean’s own words, barrelhouse piano is “a blend of ragtime and blues appearing in the last decade of the 19th century” made famous by performers like Jelly Roll Morton. At the turn of the 20th century, many pianists in this style were working along the Gulf Coast between Florida and Texas, rooting this style firmly in the southern United States. The name, barrelhouse, came from the “barrelhouse jukes” of the logging and levee camps in the area where the bar was made from planks supported by alcohol storage barrels. Entertainment in these venues came from a piano player who blended the popular jazz styles of the day – mainly ragtime and blues.
Because barrelhouse jukes were entertainment venues for dancing and blues was typically a slower style of jazz, barrelhouse borrowed the faster tempo and strident style from ragtime to create blues music suitable for dancing. Barrelhouse pianists took on a more percussive role as well, becoming a full rhythm section in their own right to get the audience swinging.
Traditional, Dixieland, & Ragtime:
Jean Kittrell’s barrelhouse piano style is firmly rooted in earlier jazz styles that originated primarily in the southern United States, especially New Orleans. The terms “traditional” and “Dixieland” may refer to the same style of jazz that Jean describes simply as “music in 4/4 time, usually improvised, based upon a melodic composition with comparatively simple harmonies and phrases of two, four, or eight bars’ length.”
Historically, “Dixieland” jazz is a revival style that developed during the 1930s and continues even today. It was originally developed in response to the heavily orchestrated swing and chaotic sounding bebop music that became popular during the 1940s. In contrast to bebop and swing, Dixieland jazz centered around a driving two-beat rhythm in 4/4 time, with emphasis on beats two and four. A common feature of this style is heard when one instrument, such as a cornet, trumpet, or clarinet, plays a melody or recognizable variation that is then adapted through improvisation by the other melody instruments. Even in Jean’s smaller ensembles, like the Jazz Incredibles, this hallmark of Dixieland or traditional jazz can be heard.
Ragtime, another common genre performed by Jean, involves “composed piano music with an often syncopated right hand swinging against the left hand’s stead four beats.” Rags, the term for a ragtime piece, typically have no lyrics, and are known as a fusion of elements from northern and southern influence. The Midwest, especially Sedalia, Missouri, was a hotbed for ragtime music at the turn of the 20th century. Rags can be heard on many of Jean’s CDs, with Jean laying down the driving juxtaposition of steady left hand and syncopated right and her bandmembers responding in kind with equally impressive rhythmic improvisation.