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As she approaches 79, Jean Kittrell
continues to ‘rock ‘em’ with her high energy, great Dixieland Music,
building memories with 'Happy Music'
By Daniel Hines
One of the
pleasures of growing older is the collection of happy memories that
we accumulate, memories that help us overcome and cast aside sadder
Dixieland pianist and artist Jean Kittrell is such a special person
as well as a great entertainer. Now approaching 79, this saucy,
sassy lady, sometimes a ‘red-hot Mama’ has gained an international
reputation and following for her high energy rendition of Dixieland
music with three different groups, all of which are still playing to
But, in addition to
being such a great musician, Jean, who lives in the St. Louis area
on the Illinois side, has another role. She’s the one who makes
those memories that those who hear and see her can call upon when
thinking of a special occasion in one’s life.
And therein lies
the basis of my long-standing affection for Jean and her talented
musicians—a situation she didn’t even know about until I interviewed
her for this story.
My Jean Kittrell
memory involves my good friend, Steve Dickens, who died just more
than a year ago from a long—very long—bout with Alzheimer’s.
Steve was not only
a great friend, but he was also a great photographer. So, when I
was assigned to prepare a party for the going public of the VP Fair
in the mid-1980s, and to make it an opportunity for the company
president to make a splash with his fellow Civic Progress board
members, I suggested a ‘party’—a two-day party, actually, on the
Robert E. Lee ‘Riverboat’ on the Mississippi Riverfront in the
shadow of the Arch.
It was a great
event. All the bigwigs from St. Louis were invited and most
attended, as did several politicians from Jefferson City. They
swigged down the free drinks and I have no idea how much food they
consumed. And, they had complimentary pictures taken by my friend,
Steve, whom I had hired to provide them with a memento of the Fair.
But, the real
memory for me came at the end of the activities when we were closing
down and leaving the Robert E. Lee—or so we thought.
There was a band playing Dixieland music that was the best I had
heard, even better than New Orleans. A blonde woman with a
flappers-style dress was belting out music at the piano, and, of all
things, there was a guy with a Sousaphone. We had to sit down and
listen and watch. The band was Jean’s The St. Louis Rivermen, and
the Sousaphone player was artist extraordinaire Red Lehr.
And then, Red
jumped up on a table to play ‘Tiger Rag’…the memory was cemented.
The significance of
all this—years later when Steve was stricken with Alzheimer’s and I
would make my occasional visit to him in Central Illinois years
later, he never failed, even as his other functions deteriorated to
I would always
respond that I looked forward to the chance to go with him and his
wife, Mary Lou, to once again be with them to hear ‘that band…’
”I’m coming down to St. Louis…and we can see that band again that we
saw on the boat…remember them, Dan?”
I shared this story
with Jean, and she was genuinely moved.
“That’s one of the
best things about this work,” she explains. “People are always
coming up and telling me of some place they saw and heard
us play, and some special memory that they had.”
Jean’s success and
talent wasn’t always so evident to everyone. While she grew up
playing piano in the Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, and
she later majored in music theory at Blue Mountain College in
Mississippi, she didn’t start on the road to her eventual stardom
until she was 30 years old, playing in the Chesapeake Bay Jazz Band
formed by her then-husband Dr. Ed Kittrell.
“We started with an
engagement at the enlisted men’s club at the nearby Naval facility,”
Jean recalls. “After we played a few numbers, a guy got up from his
table, plugged in the Juke Box
and started playing some music.
”We went back to our apartment, decided to play some later in the
night, when there was knock on the door. It was a policeman. The
neighbors had complained that we were making too much noise. We
moved out of that apartment almost immediately.”
It was hardly an
“American Idol” moment for Jean.
A year later found
Jean and Ed in Chicago where they joined the Chicago Stompers. They
took them to Germany, where they band was a great success. Jean
recalls that the Germans called Dixieland Music ‘Happy Music.”
Still, it was only
the beginning of what would be a long road to her musical acclaim
versatility and talents aren’t limited to music. In 1967, she
started playing at the Old Levee House on Laclede’s Landing on the
St. Louis Riverfront. It was magic. Jean’s solo performances, her
brassy manner, the historic riverfront and the Mississippi within a
stone’s throw packed people in and she was performing before
standing room only audiences.
But, while she was
doing that, she was also shining on the academic front, working
towards her doctorate in Modern British Literature at Southern
Illinois University in Edwardsville. Dixieland performer Jean
Kittrell became Dr. Jean Kittrell in 1973, after which she joined
the English faculty at SIU-Edwardsville.
But music remained
a part of her life as at the same time she joined the faculty, she
also joined the Mississippi Mudcats Jazz Band.
Her ability to multi-task was evident by the fact that she not only
continued to excel in her music, but also eventually served four
years as Chair of the SIU-Edwardsville English Department, all the
while playing jazz with three different groups.
The Rivermen group
was formed in 1982, and as an indication of the deep respect in
which Jean is held by her fellow musicians, Frank Maloney, then
president of the St. Louis Jazz Club, who hand-picked the members of
asked Jean to be the leader of the band. It was the start of a
relationship that continues today.
Another tribute to
Jean comes from the continuing loyalty of the people with whom she
works. Red Lehr has been a constant factor in her musical life, and
plays in all three of her bands—The St. Louis Rivermen, the Jazz
Incredibles, and the Old St. Louis Levee Band.
Others are still
with her also. A visit to her web site at
www.JeanKittrell.com includes pictures of the original Old St.
Louis Levee Band when they started, and 25 years later. And, while
all of the members, Jean included, might have some additional lines
in the later picture that were absent when all of them were so
youthful and starting out on a grand journey, one can still see that
these are indeed the very same people, examples for all of us of
what some would call ‘successful aging.’
secret is really no secret…she is a happy person, playing happy
music and she and her band members seem to just anticipate each
There would not be
enough space to list all of Jean’s honors and accomplishments. One
of them has to be the loyalty of her many fans. Even as she
approaches 79 years, Jean keeps a full schedule of engagements with
Another example of the rarified atmosphere which Jean has moved into
in the musical world was evidenced in 1998 when the directors of the
Sun Valley Swing'n'Dixie Jazz Jamboree chose her to receive a "Great
Ladies of Jazz" award, an award given each year to one contemporary
musician and one from the past. Bessie Smith was the honoree from
When one is paired
with Bessie Smith, that’s pretty heady stuff.
But, I have my own
‘Great Ladies’ award for Jean…it‘s one that goes back to one single
performance of more than 20 years ago, when she created a memory
that lived and brought pleasure over and over again to the mind of
my dear friend, Steve—a mind that was fighting the inevitable
progress of the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. But Jean
illustrates the power of music to do good, to make people happy by
playing happy music. And that’s what makes her a great lady of
music and life.