Sweet Emma Barrett
Self-taught jazz pianist Sweet Emma Barrett was able to follow any piece of music after hearing it only once.
“Sweet” Emma Barrett was an early jazz pianist and vocalist from New Orleans. A physically distinctive and eccentric figure in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band pantheon who performed with the Original Tuxedo Orchestra in the 1920s and 1930s, Barrett worked with countless jazz greats during her life, including Oscar “Papa” Celestin, Armand Piron, John Robichaux, and Paul Barbarin. She was commonly identified by her signature red skullcap and came to be known as the “Bell Gal” because she wore matching red garters adorned with bells that chimed while she played. A trailblazer among women in jazz, she recorded as leader of her own ensemble on the Southland, Riverside, and Preservation Hall record labels. Although performance opportunities were often limited or affected by the era’s gender restrictions, Barrett excelled despite these challenges, taking cues from the early female classic blues singers who insinuated double entendre and interjected humor into their lyrics and stage performances.
Barrett was born on April 25, 1897. A self-taught pianist, she was performing publicly by the age of twelve. Though relatively little is known about her early life, she is said to have played constantly and was a much-beloved figure in New Orleans entertainment from a young age. Though she never learned to read music, it is unlikely that this was a hindrance, as she played wholly by ear and was said to transpose pieces effortlessly on the fly as needed.
By 1923 Barrett was performing with Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra. When that ensemble split into two groups—one run by William Ridgley and the other run by Celestin—Barrett stayed with Ridgley, playing in that ensemble until the mid-1930s, when she began performing with John Robichaux, Sidney Desvigne, and others.
After a long period of inactivity, Barrett staged a comeback in the late 1940s; in the 1950s, she performed at the popular New Orleans lakefront venue, Happy Landing. During this time she also led her own band, sometimes touring as Sweet Emma and the Bells.
At the height of the 1960s jazz revival, like so many of her peers, Barrett began performing at Preservation Hall and touring more extensively. She led the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a number of tours, including Memphis and Minneapolis, as well as a 1965 tour to Disneyland. Though she traveled a great deal during her lifetime, her fear of flying made touring considerably more difficult. Barrett’s live concert on October 18, 1964, at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis initiated Preservation Hall’s production of its own recordings—a milestone event in which she figured prominently. A unique figure, Barrett’s peculiar stage presence and musical gifts contributed to her legendary status. A stroke in 1967 paralyzed her left side, but Barrett made a reappearance in March 1968 to perform at the Royal Orleans Hotel. She died on January 28, 1983.