In 1910, a self-taught jazz pianist and vocalist - a twelve-year-old girl named Emma Barrett - began performing in venues across New Orleans . Despite being unable to read music, Barrett was in high demand and quickly became a fixture in the New Orleans Jazz scene, where she remained for close to 50 years, up until her death in 1983 .
Barrett was born on March 25, 1897, in New Orleans, and she remained a true New Orleanian throughout her life. When she first began gracing New Orleans with her unique voice, she became known as the "Bell Gal" for her sense of style, which matched the eclectic city in which she was raised. She had a habit of, "...wearing a red dress, red woven skull cap and attaching bells on her garters that jingled as she tapped her feet to glorious jazz rhythms" . Barrett's sense of style never faded, and even after a stroke in her eighties that left her left hand paralyzed, Barrett continued to practice on Bourbon, dressed in her trademark outfit .
Barrett's fashion sense was not the only thing that caught the attention of jazz-enthusiasts along Bourbon Street, however. She was a pianist and a vocalist, as were many women at the time, as it was still considered to be “…unladylike to play the trumpet or saxophone” . Her skill was apparent to even the most amateur enthusiast, so it hardly surprising that by 1923, she was playing with, "'Papa' Celestin and later, Bébé Ridgley's Original Tuxedo Orchestra" . During her time working with these, and many other, major names in Jazz, she further developed her musical style. Her favored approach with the piano was known as the "pile-driver attack" and can be best described as blunt, while her vocals were noted for their, "...naughty double entendres with...perfect delivery" .
By 1947, the Bell Gal was also often referred to as "Sweet Emma", and she was working steadily at Happy Landing, a local club . Throughout the 1950s, she created and worked with her own band of New Orleans musicians, who occasionally called themselves Sweet Emma and the Bells . Barrett began recording her music late in life, in the 1960s. She released her first recording for, "...her own album for Riverside Records New Orleans: The Living Legends in 1961," and at this time, she also began working with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . The Preservation Hall Band specialized in Dixieland-style jazz, and could almost always be found somewhere on Bourbon Street, especially at the Preservation Hall on Saint Peter Street in the French Quarter, where they were hired as an attraction to draw patrons to the new art gallery, which they quickly outshone .
Despite the multiple tours she and her Preservation Jazz Hall Band went on - including a one to Disneyland in 1963, and a few overseas - and a write up done about her in Glamour magazine, Barrett remained true to her city, spending most of her time in the French Quarter . She and the Preservation Jazz Hall Band even briefly appeared in the movie "Cincinnati Kid," which was filmed in the city in the mid-1960s . Even a stroke that left her partially paralyzed could not slow Barrett down, and she continued to haunt the French Quarter and contribute to the jazz scene right up until her death on the 28th of January, 1983 . Without a doubt, the sort of jazz which draws people to New Orleans and has become the lifeblood of the city would be quite different with the contributions of Barrett, who spent a lifetime shaping the spirit of downtown New Orleans.