Emma Barrett: Jazz Pianist and Vocalist 1897-1983

Emma Barrett, a self-taught jazz pianist and vocalist, was born on March 25, 1897, and began performing in venues across New Orleans at just twelve years old. [1] Despite being unable to read music, Barrett was often in high demand and quickly became a fixture in the New Orleans Jazz scene. [2] In addition to recording her own work, Barrett performed and toured with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

When she first began gracing New Orleans with her unique voice, she was known as the "Bell Gal" for her sense of style. 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." [1] Barrett's sense of style never faded and she could be seen performing in clubs on Bourbon Street dressed in her trademark outfit into her eighties. [2]

Barrett's fashion sense was not the only thing that caught the attention of jazz-enthusiasts along Bourbon Street, however. At a time when it was considered “…unladylike to play the trumpet or saxophone,” Barret flocked to voice and piano. [2] By 1923, Barrett was playing with, 'Papa' Celestin and later, Bébé Ridgley's Original Tuxedo Orchestra. [1] 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." [1]

By 1947, the Bell Gal was also often referred to as "Sweet Emma", and she was working steadily at Happy Landing, a local club. [1] Throughout the 1950s, she created and worked with her own band Sweet Emma and the Bells [1]. Barrett began recording her music 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. [1] 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. [1]

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 about her in Glamour magazine, Barrett remained true to her city, spending most of her time in the French Quarter. [1] 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. [1] Even a stroke that left her partially paralyzed could not slow Barrett down, and she continued to contribute to the French Quarter's jazz scene right up until her death on the 28th of January, 1983. [1]



Preservation Hall, 726 Saint Peter Street, New Orleans, LA