“SWEET EMMA” BARRETT: The Bell Gal and Her Dixieland Boys
Emma Barrett (p) (and vocals on Side 1, #1, and Side 2, #1 and 4) Percy Humphrey (tp) Jim Robinson (tb) Willie Humphrey (cl) Emanuel Sayles (bj, g) McMeal Breaux (b) Josiah Frasier (drs)
Recorded in New Orleans; January 25, 1961
Bill Bailey (4:26) (Hugh Cannon)
Chinatown (3:54) (Schwartz – Jerome)
Down in Honky Tonk Town (4:50) (Smith – McCarron)
The Bell Gal’s Careless Blues (5:35) (Emma Barrett)
I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of this Jelly Roll (5:32) (C. & S. Williams)
Just a Little While to Stay Here (4:00) (traditional/ arr. by Emma Barrett)
Tishomingo Blues (3:53) (Spencer Williams)
When the Saints Go Marching In (6:38) (traditional/ arr. by Emma Barrett)
Even though the days of New Orleans jazz are now clearly numbered, one remarkably good and quite successful new band of real authenticity has come into being in that city in recent years. Its leader in no way appears or behaves like the last torchbearer of a dying art form. Her business card proclaims, with joyous brashness:
“SWEET EMMA and Her Dixieland Boys. THE BELL GAL, Former Pianist of the Old Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, RINGING HER BELLS, and Spanking the Ivories with Blues and Dixieland Jazz.”
A purist would consider the music of this band New Orleans jazz rather than Dixieland, but Sweet Emma is too good a businesswoman to quibble about terms. For her, the combination of some of the very finest still-active New Orleans sidemen and a starling gimmick has proven to be a winner. Her gimmick is a pair of garters with dozens of tiny bells sewn on them, a bright red dress, and a red beanie with still more bells on it – all of which transformed Emma Barrett, an old time band pianist who had been working in neighborhood dance halls and Bourbon Street clubs for years without achieving any great dame or success, into “Sweet Emma,” leader of one of the most popular bands in the city.
Curing the 1920s girl pianists were something of a rage with Negro orchestras I New Orleans. Emma Barrett was a regular member of the Tuxedo Band in 1923. Later she worked with “name” dance orchestras, under John Robichaux, Armadn Piron and Sidney Desvignes, but she spent the 1940s and ‘50s playing in four or five-piece groups in small local clubs. It was the proprietor of one such Bourbon Street night spot who gave Emma her first set of ringing garters. She invented the rest of her Bell Gal outfit and promptly formed a band of her own.
In large part Emma is following a tradition of “popular” jazz in New Orleans that derives from Papa Celestin’s band. Celestin had maintained a good dance orchestra in the ‘20s, getting a goodly share of the country clubs and other “society” jobs. During the post-war New Orleans revival, his very considerable home-town by upper-class New Orleans (in many cases his new fans were sons and daughters of those who had hired his bands many years earlier), and the fact that his name retained its magic and kept the name of jazz popular in many quarters even after Papa’s death in 1954 has been of value to more than one present-day band. Sweet Emma has been able to appeal to Celestin fans, tourists, and devotees of pure traditional jazz alike, by combining Celestin-style showmanship with a band capable of playing more real jazz than any that Papa ever fronted. (That grand old man was never the trumpet player Percy Humphrey is now, nor did he ever have a trombonist the equal of Jim Robinson.)
Emma first led a quartet that played regularly for almost a year in the relaxed atmosphere of the Old Absinthe House. Now the band, often enlarged to seven pieces, is in constant demand for private parties and dances all over Louisiana and neighboring states.
Emma herself is bony as a crow, and her piano style is just as lean and spare. As she plays her knees bounce from side to side, setting her little bells ringing. Emma says she would rather play than sing had has never taken her vocals very seriously. The first time she ever heard her own voice was during the playbacks at this session, and she was surprised and pleased. Said Emma: “Why, I sound just like a real old time blues singer!”
The musical director of the band is Percy Humphrey, who has set for it some very high standards. As a trumpet player, Percy has all the tools: tone, technique, imagination and taste. His playing is lyrical, hot and always original. He exploits the upper register of his horn far more than older men like Bunk Johnson and Kid Thomas, but his playing remains beautifully controlled and within the New Orleans idiom. (The main reason he is not better known outside New Orleans is that his insurance job prevents him from leaving the city for any length of time.) Willie Humphrey is 60, about five years Percy’s senior and a far more cosmopolitan figure. He began his career with the famous Excelsior Brass Band in 1919, played with King Oliver at that year’s World Series in Chicago, worked with riverboat bands during the ‘20s, and after World War II toured with Paul Barbarine. Emma depends on Willie’s abilities as an entertainer: he can sing, dance and clown with the best. Contrastingly, he is an excellent musician who has always been able to play about as much New Orleans clarinet as the situation demanded.
J im Ribinson’s gutteral trombone was one of the foundations on which the entire New Orleans revival was built. Emma had long considered him the ideal trombonist for her band, and as soon as Jim announced his intention of staying close to home, induced him to become a regular member. “Cie” Frasier’s stick technique on snare drum and wood blocks and his bass drum work excemplary; his approach to drumming is perhaps more characteristic of the traditional style than that of any other still-active drummer in the city. The banjo is popular with Sweet Emma’s audiences, but the lady herself says that she personally would rather hear Emanuel Sayles play the blues on an unamplified guitar. McNeal Breaux, a nephew and pupil of Wellman Braud, is a magnificent cook and is busy operating his restaurant, but says that it now seems well enough under control for him to leave it whenever Emma has a job.
Emma was quite excited about the recording session. She showed up at Les Jeunes Amis Hall with a long list of the favorite tunes of her most ardent fans, but midway through the first take someone suddenly realized that she had forgotten her bells! “Without the bells the people won’t believe it’s me,” she said, and the session was held up for a half-hour while Emma dashed home. When she returned, she was resplendent in scarlet and jingling from head to foot!
This is far and away the best-organized jazz band now playing regularly in New Orleans. The purely ensemble style of years ago has with them given way to a form of jazz in which there is a place for the short, exciting solo. Even Frasier is turned loose on occasion, and some of the tunes – particularly those with vocals – build into rather elaborate production numbers. But the essence of New Orleans music is still very much in evidence: the three-horn polyhony in the ensembles, the firm yet supple rhythmic backing, and a feeling of relaxation that avoids all that is mechanical or contrived.
This album is part of an extensive group of recordings of traditional jazz as played today made by Riverside in New Orleans during January, 1961, and issued under the general series title, “New Orleans: The Living Legends.” Sweet Emma and the musicians featured with her can also be heard in the first release in this series, which is an overall survey of the current Crescent City sense –
NEW ORLEANS: The Living Legends (RLP 356/357; Stereo RLP 9356/9357 – a two-LP set)
Produced by CHRIS ALBERTSON
Notes written by HERB FRIEDWALD
Cover designed by KEN DEARDOFF
Cover photos by RALSTON CRAWFORD, back-liner photos by FLORENCE MARS
Recording Engineer: DAVE JONES
Mastered by JACK MATTHEWS (Components Corp.) on a HYDROFEED lathe
Riverside gratefully acknowledges the valuable assistance of Herb Friedwald in the in the planning and recording of this project. We also wish to express thanks for the cooperation extended by Henry Zaccardi, assistant to the president, American Federation of Musicians; and by New Orleans Locals 174 and 496, A. F. of M.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York 36, New York