Much of Jean’s legacy cannot be heard in music recordings or at concerts and festivals. Rather, memories from her fans and peers show the impact she had on their lives, making them smile, giving them hope, and providing inspiration in myriad forms. Dozens of signature addressed to Jean with well wishes and thanks for many years of music are seen in the signed poster below, from musician and fan Jim Gover’s 2005 Traditional Jazz Party.
When the Jazz Incredibles toured Europe, one fan created a handmade concert poster for “Jean Kittrell and her Jazz Incredibles,” highlighting the impact of her irresistible energy on stage. Even as her career was just beginning, Jean managed to inspire those around her and create lasting friendships, evidenced by the many signed publicity photos she received from legendary jazz performers including Edmond “Doc” Souchon and George Brunies. Keeping in touch with her fans via email, written correspondence, and her website, some fans even sent her photographs from her performances, like one from a parade at the Monterey Festival in 1993.
Fan Letter from Libby M. Turnbull
This particular fan letter, written by a former high school English teacher, Libby M. Turnbull, highlights the emotional impact of Jean’s presence on stage, bringing along her history and experiences to share with audiences across the country. The letter’s opening, “taking the first-name initiative” and comment that Libby “really was surprised and thrilled with the sheer enthusiasm and friendliness” of Jean’s group is a testament to the relatability and realism Jean infused every performance with. Click on the letter to view a full transcript of the letter.
Over the years, none have had the opportunity to make more jazz memories with Jean than her former bandmembers, many of whom have reflected on their experiences. In an article about Jean’s retirement in 2008 on the St. Louis Rivermen’s website (see: http://stlrivermen.com/mamasgone.asp), trumpeter and cornetist Steve Lilley writes,
“She always seemed to arrive on stage at the last possible second, mainly because as soon as she entered the concert hall she navigated through throngs of well-wishing jazz fans. Everyone was glad to see her, and she loved seeing them. Most didn’t realize that before Jean reached the stage she had spent many hours attending to the details of running a band. They only saw the smile and that volcanic energy.”
Bandmember David “Red” Lehr, who was interviewed alongside Jean by Therese Dickman and Emily Warf in 2016 for the National Ragtime and Jazz Archive, has fond memories of hearing Jean perform for the first time at the Old Levee House in St. Louis, Missouri. Hear it in his own words in the audio clip below. Jean and Red’s friendship spanned all three of her bands and nearly her entire career.
Though no longer online, Jean’s website comments board also recorded many fond memories from colleagues and jazz festival organizers. A 2005 comment from musician and bandleader Text Wyndham describes Jean as “an entertainer who always connects with her audience [with] irrepressibly naughty humor and her irresistible high spirits.” Those who attended the Jazz Incredibles performance at the Eagles & Ivories Ragtime & Jazz Festival in Muscatine, Iowa have fond memories of the fire alarm going off twice. Pianist and author Bob Milne, who was in attendance, remembers,
“[…]many of us tried long and hard to figure out the logistics of how or what they did to actually cause a large alarm system to go off. The band itself couldn’t figure it out. We finally decided that there could only be one reason: Jean Kittrell is one red hot mama. Rock on Jeannie.[…] Just show us where the reset button is next time.”