Emma Barrett started playing piano aged seven, and by 1910, aged just 12, she was performing regularly in bars and clubs in New Orleans. She had a strident, barrelhouse way of playing and quickly became a popular musician. Her penchant for wearing a red woven cap and garters with Christmas bells attached which jingled their accompaniment to the music, earned her the nickname of 'Bell Gal.' She was also dubbed 'Sweet' because of her artistic temperament. Before forming her own band, Barrett played with Oscar 'Papa' Celestin's Original Tuxedo Orchestra from 1923 to 1928, and when the band split into two parts, Emma stayed with William 'Bebe' Ridgley in his Tuxedo jazz Orchestra until the mid-1930s when she began performing with trumpeter Sidney Desvigne, violinist player Armand Piron and bandleader, drummer and violinist John Robichaux. After a break from 1938 until 1947, Emma returned to music, playing at the Happy Landing club in Pecaniere. In the late 1950s, after working with trumpeter Percy Humphrey and Israel Gordon, Barrett formed a band with Percy and his brother Willie, a clarinet player.
In the 1960s, Barrett assembled and toured with New Orleans musicians in an ensemble called 'Sweet Emma and The Bells.' She also recorded a live session at the Laura Lea Guest House on Mardi Gras in 1960 with her band. It was titled, ' Sweet Emma Barrett and her Dixieland Boys: Mardi Gras 1960'. It was not released until 1997 on 504. In 1961 she made another recording for Riverside as part of their 'New Orleans: Legends Of Jazz' series. Suddenly, Emma found recognition outside of New Orleans. Tours with the Preservation Hall band followed, but Barrett felt most comfortable in New Orleans. In 1961 she, along with Percy and Willie Humphrey, began playing regularly at the Preservation Hall, now moved one door along St Peter street, and transformed from an art show house into a bone-fide performance venue and run by Allan Jaffe.
A medical student named Henry Blackburn was present at the opening of Preservation Hall in October 1961. He wanted that music to come to Minneapolis, where there was an active scene of traditional New Orleans Jazz. He organized Jass Sponsors Inc. from 1961-to 1963, through which a group of Minnesota people backed jazz concerts, guaranteeing against losses and accepting no profits - exciting use of the old term for jazz in the name. In effect, Jass Sponsors Inc. offered an 'unrefusable offer.' They sponsored the first tour of a Preservation Hall Band anywhere: to the Tyrone Guthrie Theater and the University of Minnesota in July 1963. So successful was the tour that it was repeated in 1964. By that time, Preservation Hall, under the ownership of the Jaffe family, had its own label, and they and Jass Sponsors Inc. had a recording made of the concert - which they released as 'New Orleans' Sweet Emma Barrett and her Preservation Hall Jazz Band.' The lineup on the record is Barrett, Willie Humphrey on clarinet, Percy Humphrey on trumpet, 'Big' Jim Robinson on trombone, Alcide 'Slow Drag' Parageau on bass, Emanuel Sayles on banjo, and Josiah 'Cie' Frazier on drums. Apart from Sayles and Robinson, this ensemble made up the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Allan Jaffe produced the recording.
The Preservation Hall Bands now toured regularly, becoming part of a significant renaissance of traditional New Orleans jazz. The Sweet Emma Barrett concert was probably the longest and best-selling recording. It has liner notes written by violinist, composer, jazz historian, and collector William Russell. He was central to the post-war renaissance of New Orleans traditional jazz and head of America Music Records. Henry Blackburn added a commercial line or two next to the liner notes for sponsorships at the request of Allan Jaffe and his wife, Sandra. It was hoped that the model would be copied in other communities, stimulating a further revival of the traditional jazz scene.
Later, the Sweet Emma Barrett recording was re-issued by Ben Jaffe, son of Allan Jaffe, the original Preservation Hall owner, in 1976 in a 2 volume CD set.
This recording encapsulates the essence of New Orleans Jazz played in the mid-1960s. At the time, Barrett was 66 and in the most powerful phase of her career, mainly due to her ongoing association with the Preservation Hall Jazz band - where she was the centre of attention, wowing audiences with her personality and talent. Even after a devastating stroke in 1967 left her only able to play with her right hand, she made another recording back on Riverside Records in 1968 and continued to perform occasionally until within a few months of her death in 1983.
This recording does justice to the atmosphere of a live performance as each song is introduced by Percy Humphrey on MC duty, amid clapping and general noise picked up from the audience members. ' Basin Street' sees the band introduced one by one, and as they are introduced, they swell the sound of the number, with the final member being Emma Barrett herself, who is presented as 'Sweet Emma The Bell Gal.'
There is an energy and joy in this music that still works today; from the heavy handed rhythmic piano playing on 'Basin Street' to the romp 'Little Lisa Jane' sung by Willie Humphrey with Emma and the boys providing backing vocals over riotous accompaniment. Barrett provides emotive vocals on 'Closer Walk With Thee.' Her creative arrangement of 'When The Saints Go Marching In,' with Percy Humphrey's vocals, countered beautifully by Emma's voice and a delirious clarinet solo from Willie Humphrey, is incredibly uplifting, as is 'Do Lord' with an intricate banjo introduction from Emanuel Sayles.
The sound created by New Orleans jazz bands in the mid-1960s is impossible to recreate today, so this is such an important recording. The nigh perfect combination of an influential female leader, backed by an outstanding Dixie ensemble, is unlikely to occur or be as popular again.
The recording is important for other reasons. Sweet Emma Barrett was a strong woman, but although she toured with her bands, appeared on the cover of Glamour magazine, and was written about in publications in the US and Europe as a female lead in the mid-1960s, she would have had to tolerate misogyny and racism. It is a testament to her and Preservation Hall that she was fronted as a vital musician for the venue. She led the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on several tours. She dealt with patronising attitudes from male performers by matching them in talent and eventually leading her band, helping to remove barriers. Barrett felt most at home in the French Quarter of New Orleans despite touring.
Barrett excelled in an era when gender restrictions meant limited opportunities. Part of the affection with which she was held came from her indomitable personality. She was known to have a dry wit and be handy with double entendres. She distrusted banks, doctors, and planes. She preferred to keep her savings in a red purse that she took everywhere - even on stage and despite being robbed twice on the street. When the band toured, Barrett would be put on a train ahead of the rest of the band, where she would isolate herself in a carriage with a hatbox of food for the journey. She continued to play even when unwell and was verbally abusive to Doctor Blackburn, who looked after some of the Preservation Hall's musicians. Sometimes, she was also known for occasionally sleeping upright in a chair, perhaps in someone else's room and for her long, drawn-out phone calls. Yet such was the respect she gained that her demands directed at Preservation Hall staffer Chris Botsford for cakes or particular items and her snappy retorts to adoring fans were tolerated and seemed to diminish her popularity, not one iota.
Despite never learning to read music, her talent was unparalleled, and she could switch keys and transpose at will. Her humour and sassy delivery on stage and her musicianship made Emma Barrett a beloved and popular musician both in New Orleans and across America.
There is possibly no better way to capture the essence of New Orleans Preservation Hall music in the mid-1960s than this 1964 recording.