Last week, hundreds gathered on the campus of Gallaudet University to remember the life of a beloved local doctor. But Jessie Kittrell, who died Jan. 20 at the age of 84, didn’t practice medicine. He was a doctor of the blues.
That was Kittrell’s nickname: Dr. Blues. He and his family ran the Logan Circle haunt New Vegas Lounge for 44 years. Kittrell bought the red brick space in 1971 and turned it into a neighborhood mainstay for drinks, blues music and good times. Onstage, Kittrell led The Out of Town Blues Band, a seven-piece ensemble that rocked presidential inaugurations and weddings.
In his old-fashioned, thick-framed glasses, Dr. Blues looked the part. But his office was a little nontraditional. As Eve Zibart wrote in a 1993 Washington Post article, the lounge of the ‘90s was “a smoky, guffawing, urban version of a plug-in porch party that [drew] patrons of all ages and colors.” The club underwent a sweeping renovation 10 years later, modernizing the space but never quite erasing its down-home feel.
When Kittrell arrived in Washington in 1951, he worked as a stone setter at the National Cathedral. Then he moved into small business, opening Jet’s Delicatessen at 14th and Belmont streets NW in 1967. His son, Jeremy, says that his dad became a father figure to many local kids.
“A lot of people never had the opportunity to have a father, somebody that’s actually there for you when you need him,” Kittrell says in a phone call. He says his dad was the kind of person who encouraged “living life in the proper direction — getting your education, going to school, being a man of God. All of those things were the things that he stood by.”
Around the New Vegas Lounge, gentrification has transformed Logan Circle into one of the city’s priciest neighborhoods. But the nightspot has survived the change.
Jeremy Kittrell, who co-owns the club with his brothers Justin and Jason and their mother, Edith, says the venue will also live on without Dr. Blues. He says that between owning the building and eight other properties in the neighborhood, his family has no plans to move their business.
In fact, Jeremy says the family is in meetings with a company to consider expanding New Vegas Lounge, which would mean adding locations in Miami and Las Vegas.
Justin Kittrell, Jeremy’s brother, plays drums and sings for The Out of Town Blues Band. His story — of being a boy cleaning the club with his brothers, and finally sitting down to play at the drum kit — is a classic tale.
“My dad said, ‘You’re going to learn how to play one day. Just keep trying,’” Justin says.
Justin joined the house band after graduating from high school in 2002, and three years later he took a place as a singer — also under his father’s encouragement. Now he and Jeremy speak proudly of their dad, who died one day shy of his 85th birthday. Justin says there was nothing quite like sharing a stage with Dr. Blues.
“It was the most amazing thing in the world,” Justin says. “Because really, all my encouragement came from him. I never really wanted to be a musician. I always loved music, and I played. But seeing him out there, sing and dance, and being a musician at heart himself — he always encouraged me to do it.”