Irene Kitchings

Biography by

b. Irene Armstrong, c.1908, Marietta, Ohio, USA, d. c.1975. After taking piano lessons from her piano-teacher mother, Kitchings moved to Chicago and in her late teens was working as a solo pianist in…
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Artist Biography by

b. Irene Armstrong, c.1908, Marietta, Ohio, USA, d. c.1975. After taking piano lessons from her piano-teacher mother, Kitchings moved to Chicago and in her late teens was working as a solo pianist in jazz clubs and sitting-in at after-hours sessions. She formed her own jazz groups, mostly with all-male personnel, and was very popular especially with the club-owning gangsters of late-20s Chicago. In addition to playing piano, she also wrote music but at this time playing came first. At the start of the 30s she met and married Teddy Wilson (having previously been married to trumpeter Joe Eadey) and for a while their careers ran in parallel. When Wilson moved to New York, however, she went with him, abandoning her playing career. In the mid-30s, Wilson was a highly popular member of the Benny Goodman organization and the marriage foundered. She was encouraged by Benny Carter to turn to her composing as a means of lifting her from the depression the breakdown in her marriage had caused. Billie Holiday, who had become friendly with her when recording with Wilson, effected an introduction to lyricist Arthur Herzog Jnr. Their first collaboration, ‘Some Other Spring’, was recorded by Holiday, and for the next few years the partnership produced some fine songs, the last of which was ‘I’m Pulling Through’, also recorded by Holiday. At this time, the early 40s, Kitchings was unwell and had gone to Cleveland where she was cared for by an aunt. Here she met and married Elden Kitchings. Her later years were largely inactive in musical terms, although happy ones. Such musical activity as there was centred upon the church where she sang and played the organ. Kitchings suffered from an eye disease which made her final years difficult.

Kitchings’ reputation as a pianist was restricted largely to musicians with whom she played in Chicago but within this group she was highly praised. As a composer her reputation is even higher. Sally Placksin quotes her collaborator Herzog as saying, ‘Anything she wrote, I could put words to, and that doesn’t happen very often’. Helen Oakley Dance said, ‘Her musical streak came out in composition’. Kitchings and Dance were good friends and another of their group, who was encouraged by both, was Carmen McRae, then a teenager starting out. But for the hiatus in her career during her marriage to Wilson, there seems little doubt that Kitchings would be remembered today as an exceptionally good pianist and leader. As it is, her name lives on with her songs, some of which became standards and paradigms of the songwriter’s art.