Emma Barrett (1897-1983)

Scholar Sherrie Tucker introduces jazz pianist Emma Barrett with her business card:

SWEET EMMA
Former Pianist of
the Old Original Tuxedo Band
RINGING HER BELLS
And Spanking the Ivories with
Dixieland Jazz, at its best.
Phone HU. 8-1636, New Orleans, La.

This document is a form usually called by archivists, ephemera, to reflect the fleeting nature of those pieces of paper that come daily into our lives, and just as easily usually disappear. The card is a part now of the Historic New Orleans Collection, and suggest how even in words, Emma Barrett wanted to convey her spunk, her enthusiasm for the piano.

When Barrett played, she wore a red dress, garters with small bells, and a red beanie. But even before this outfit and her long association with Preservation Hall, Barrett had a history in New Orleans: as a student of Professor Nickerson and as a member of bands playing for decades in neighborhood dance clubs, including, in the 1920s, Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band.

Barrett’s life is one of contrasts. Born into a large family of seven boys and three girls, her father had been a state senator during Reconstruction. Her musical talent was recognized early. Yet, her paper traces are not as wide as one would want.

Still, part of her lasting presence was not only that she played so consistently in the city, especially in Preservation Hall for over 20 years, but also that her piano playing was part of a two-disk record set record made in 1961, New Orleans: The Living Legend. This made her part of the image of the city’s music projected to the world. It is interesting to contrast her — as nationally known and as a jazz musician — to others in earlier chapter. She broke out of the mold of respectability by being unique — a role women achievers often take upon themselves. That she would play as an old woman from her wheel chair only made her more unusual and beloved by the crowds visiting Preservation Hall. In terms of archival theory, too, uniqueness is central.

Remembering her life makes one also appreciate the importance of Preservation Hall. Preservation Hall founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe recognized that there was a need for a place where New Orleans musicians could play New Orleans Jazz. If not, they knew this music would disappear. They too enter the “archival tradition.” Emma Barrett is one of the only individual musicians featured in Preservation Hall’s website’s listing of recordings for sale in 2013.