Jean Kittrell


She walks slowly to the stage, head erect, steadying herself with a cane and pulling a small, black roll-on bag with sheet music, set lists , and other necessary items. A fan, friend, or musician, offers his hand as she mounts the steps to the stage. She smiles gratefully, exchanging a few words with him while she seats herself at the piano. After the emcee's introduction and while the applause crescendos, she flashes a smile toward the audience, shakes the red fringe on her dress, and shouts "we're having us a ball here, so we're going to play 'At the Jazz Band Ball'!" With that, Jean Kittrell and the St. Louis Rivermen roar to life.

I've seen countless concerts and jazz festival sets begin this way since Jean hired me as the Rivermen's cornet player in 1999. She carried no cane then. 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 saw only the smile and that volcanic energy.

Managing and leading a band that performs locally, regionally, and on the festival circuit requires a lot of stamina, and Jean Kittrell has met that challenge for decades. She's America's First Lady of Jazz.

I first saw Jean in the 1960's performing on the Goldenrod showboat during the National Ragtime Festivals in St. Louis. Her solo acts brought audiences to their feet. Her vocals with the Boll Weevil Jass Band electrified jazz fans. Her Jazz Incredibles and Old Saint Louis Levee bands enjoyed long stands on the St. Louis riverfront. From Europe to Asia and back home in America's heartland Jean Kittrell wowed 'em all.

As with all top-notch performers, she made it appear easy and fun. That's her job, but for months the job has become tougher. A cranky ankle, damaged by years of foot stomping at the keyboard, forced her to trade her high heels for fancy tennis shoes. Knees, once revealed by long dress slits, became arthritic. If the jazz world issued musical purple hearts for injuries suffered in the line of duty, Jean would have earned at least two. In May, 2008, atrial fibrillation sapped her energy and required hospitalization. I watched Jean conceal her exhaustion at festivals in Madison, Wisconsin, Sacramento, California, and Olympia, Washington pouring everything she had into her performances with the Rivermen. Then in July a colonoscopy revealed a cancerous mass.

Jean knew it was time to retire. She had already missed a scheduled performance at the Oregon Jazz Jubilee and had to cancel her appearances at some local jobs, at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, and the Orange County Classic Jazz Festival. No longer confident that she could fulfill her performance commitments, and determined to focus on recovery, she resigned from all three of her bands, the St. Louis Rivermen, the Old Saint Louis Levee Band, and the Jazz Incredibles on July 21st, 2008. America's First Lady of Jazz has retired from the music business. As of this writing, she is scheduled for surgery on Monday, August 11th.

In the meantime, Jean remains upbeat. She's enjoying a visit from her daughter, Camille and her close friend, Lani Bourne. If you know Kittrell, you realize that retirement from music will just give her time to explore other dimensions of life.

She has also decreed that the St. Louis Rivermen should continue. The band's members agree. If we have learned nothing else from performing under Jean Kittrell, we have learned to do what she says. The band appeared at the Bix Fest in Davenport with Ray Templin on piano and on several occasions received three standing ovations during a set. Ray will hold down the piano bench for the band at most of our festivals. World-renowned sousaphonist Red Lehr will act as the band's leader, and his wife, Carolyn, is the band's new business manager. I get the easy job—calling tunes and talking on the microphone.

As band members left Jean's house the day she told us she had decided to retire, she said "I'm as proud of you all as if you were my own children—except that I didn't have to go through labor with you or make you breakfast." She didn't say which was harder. I didn't ask.

Steve Lilley