St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 is one of the largest of New Orleans’ “cities of the dead,” stretching back nearly half a mile from its entrance on Esplanade Avenue. It opened in 1854 and is still active today. Several fixtures of the city’s music community have been laid to rest here.
“Sweet” Emma Barrett (ca. 1897 – 1983) was a one-of-a-kind pianist, singer, and bandleader. In the 1950s her business card read:
Former Pianist of
The Old Original Tuxedo Band
RINGING HER BELLS
And Spanking the Ivories with Dixieland
Jazz at its Best.
The bells in question were sewn to garters she wore are around her calves, and jingled when she stomped her feet beneath her piano (in her later years she also wore a red skull cap with “Sweet Emma the Bell Gal” embroidered on it in gold).
Barrett was one of the few female instrumentalists to play in New Orleans’ early jazz bands, and she worked with the best, including Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s Tuxedo Orchestra (the Original Tuxedo Band came later, after a schism in Celestin’s group). She played with power and had a great ear, adapting her chords on the fly when she had to perform on out-of-tune pianos.
Barrett had a reputation for being salty. Her bandmate Percy Humphrey told author William Carter that she had a penchant for insulting people. He went on: “And don’t you know a whole lot of people liked it? And she got along with them.”
After a stroke in 1967, she moved for a time into the apartment behind Preservation Hall with proprietors Allan and Sandra Jaffe. Sweet Emma continued to lead a Preservation Hall Band for years afterward, playing the piano from a wheelchair, using only her right hand.
Donald Harrison, Sr. (1933 – 1998) was a Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief and patriarch of the Harrison family, which includes two major figures in modern jazz, Donald Harrison, Jr. and Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (formerly Christian Scott). Harrison, Sr., who first masked in 1949, is credited with popularizing his friend Bernard Lomax’s song “Shallow Water,” now a Mardi Gras Indian standard. He influenced generations of Indians, having been Big Chief of the Creole Wild West, the White Eagles, and the Guardians of the Flame.
Two photographers who illuminated the social context of New Orleans’ music are also buried in St. Louis No. 3. E.J. Belloc (1873 – 1949) took portraits of the women of Storyville, an important site in the development of jazz. Ralston Crawford (1906 – 1978), a midcentury visual artist, photographed musical performances in black communities that would otherwise have been invisible to outsiders and later generations (his images can be found throughout A Closer Walk).