Sweet Emma Barret- a bandleader who , at 66 gained fame and defied limitations of gender and colour.
'Sweet' Emma Barrett was one of the great pioneers of jazz. She blew away the myths of women having to be young, nubile and dressing provocatively. At a time when both her gender, age and colour would have prohibited an easy passage, Emma Barrett became a star, led a band and played in great venues, leading her band.
Emma Barrett started playing piano aged 7 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 darling of the audiences. Her delectation for wearing a red beret gave her an identity and the Christmas bells attached to her garters, which jingled as she moved her legs to the rhythm of the music, earned her the nickname of 'Bell Gal'. She was also dubbed 'Sweet' with a in tor irony because of her 'artistic' temperament.
Before forming her own band, Barrett played with Oscar 'Papa' Celestin's Original Tuxedo Orchestra from 1923-1928. The band then divided into, Celetin leading one part and William 'Bebe' Ridgley leading the other. Emma remained with Ridgley's 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 lakeside Happy Landing club in Pecaniere, which led to a renewed interest in her. 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 an ensemble called 'Sweet Emma and The Bells' comprised wholly of New Orleans musicians. 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' . The recording was not released until 1997 on 504 records. In 1961 she made another recording for Riverside as part of their 'New Orleans: Legends Of Jazz' series. Suddenly, included with many greats and outstanding in her own right, Emma found recognition outside of New Orleans. Tours with the Preservation Hall band followed and Barrett enjoyed the support of the Hall's owners. However, she always felt most at home in the French Quarter of 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 and from the outset he wanted that music to come to Minneapolis where there was an active scene in traditional New Orleans Jazz. He recently explained to me how Sweet Emma became vital as part of the movement.
Henry organised Jass Sponsors Inc. from 1961-1963, an organisation through which a group of Minnesota people backed jazz concerts, guaranteeing against losses and accepting no profits - an interesting use of the old term for jazz in the name. In effect, Jass Sponsors Inc. offered an 'offer which couldn't be refused' . They sponsored the first tour of a Preservation Hall Band and concerts were arranged at 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 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 line up 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. This ensemble, apart from Sayles and Robinson, made up the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The recording was produced by Allan Jaffe.
The Preservation Hall Band now toured regularly, becoming part of a major renaissance of traditional New Orleans jazz. The Sweet Emma Barrett concert was probably the longest and also the best selling recording. It has liner notes written by violinist, composer, jazz historian and collector William Russell who 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 to next to the liner notes for sponsorships at the request of Allan Jaffe and his wife Sandra. It was hoped at the time that the model would be copied in other communities, stimulating further revival of the traditional jazz scene more widely.
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, particularly 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 introduced as 'Sweet Emma The Bell Gal' .
There is an energy and joy in this music which still works today; from the heavy handed rhythmic piano playing on 'Basin Street', to the romp which is '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' and 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, which is why this is such an important recording. The nigh perfect combination of a powerful 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 and 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 and dealt with patronising attitudes from male performers by matching them in talent and eventually leading her own band, so helping to remove barriers. In spite of touring, Barrett felt most at home in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Barrett excelled in an era when gender and colour 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 and acerbic retorts to people who commented on her music. She distrusted banks, doctors and planes. She preferring to keep her savings with her in a red purse which she took everywhere - even on stage and in spite of 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. She was also known to sometimes sleep sat 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.
In spite of 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, along with 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.