THE ICON: Sweet Emma Barrett
THE LEGACY: Nobody’s really sure how Sweet Emma Barrett earned her nickname, but whoever gave it to her could have chosen from any number of other monikers. They could have, for example, called her “Original Emma,” given that she had been a fixture on New Orleans’ traditional jazz scene at least since the 1920s, when she joined Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band, followed by decades with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They could have called her “Energetic Emma” for her forceful, calliope-like playing style, which “chew(ed) up the backboard” of pianos. Perhaps “One-Of-A-Kind Emma,” for her trademark red beanie and the bells she wore on her garter to provide jingling accompaniment to her playing; or “Indomitable Emma” for her three-nights-a-week schedule at Pres Hall even after a 1967 stroke left her playing with just one hand. Perhaps most fitting, though, would have been “Unforgettable Emma,” because that’s truly what she was: an unforgettable musical force and one of the indisputable first ladies of New Orleans jazz.
THE ARTIST: Jeremy Paten
THE INSPIRATION: “People would come by the hall and ask, ‘Is Emma in tonight?’ If not, they’d walk on.” — Preservation Hall co-founder Allen Jaffe, remembering Emma Barrett in 1983