Musician has kept the beat going for over 50 years


December 29, 2006|By Janet Gilbert

It's a feeling that's hard to top, according to Bob Barrett.

"There's nothing greater in this world than sitting in the middle of an orchestra when they're playing live," said Barrett, a trumpet virtuoso who lives in Ellicott City. "The sound! There's no recording, nothing like it."

Barrett, 68, should know -- he has had that feeling often in a professional music career spanning more than 50 years. He has played in clubs, theaters, bands and symphonies, and for singers, comedians and presidents. And he has passed his passion on to students as a music teacher with the Howard County schools for 36 years and as a private instructor.

It all started when Barrett came home from junior high school one day with a clarinet.

"My father said, `You don't want to play that!'" Barrett recalled. "`We want to play the trumpet.'"

Barrett recalls his father marching him down to the Cetta Music store in Scranton, Pa., renting a trumpet, and signing him up for lessons with his first teacher, Louie Cavacci.

"It was at the end of the vaudeville era," Barrett said. "My teacher played in the orchestra at the Capital Theater in Scranton -- I spent every Saturday watching him play."

Barrett looked forward to his private lessons with Cavacci as well as his "lessons" in the theater.

"I would spend four, five, six hours sitting next to Louie. When he took a break and went to the diner to get dinner, I would finally go home," Barrett said.

When Barrett was in high school, his band director, Gene Morse, heard him practicing Harry James' "Concerto for Trumpet." Morse transcribed the music for Barrett, who played it as a junior in high school. He also encouraged Barrett to audition for the Pennsylvania State Band, where he earned first chair.

By this time, Barrett was playing with the Gene Dempsey Orchestra in Scranton -- an experience he credits with influencing his later big-band career. Next, Barrett got a job as "librarian" for the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was playing second trumpet at age 16.

After high school graduation, Barrett joined the Navy to play in the Navy Band.

"I thought my mother was going to faint," Barrett said.

After four years, Barrett returned home to audition for music schools. He was accepted at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1965.

Barrett recalls his first day there, when he encountered his future wife, Nelly Wahbe, who walked him to the audition room.

"I remember she was wearing a blue herringbone suit, and she had the blackest hair. I asked her, `What's your name?' and she said, `Here's Room 10.'"

All year long, Barrett said, he kept asking her out on dates, "and she would say no. I even asked her to my graduation. She would tell me, `I don't like you too much.'"

Barrett started playing locally, at the Club Venus in Baltimore, for national acts coming through on tours. During the day, he taught elementary school in Baltimore County, and he took night classes toward a master's degree in music education at Peabody. All the while, he continued to see Nelly. One summer, he went away to Dartmouth College, to play with the Dartmouth Symphony for eight weeks.

"She started getting sort of nicer," Barrett said of Nelly.

He finished graduate studies at Peabody and called Nelly to see if she would like to go to this graduation. Barrett said she replied with, "I don't really like you that much, but I'll go." That night, he asked her to marry him. She said yes.

Barrett began working for the Howard County school system and playing jobs at area theaters and clubs. By 1998, Barrett was performing and touring with the renowned Gene Donati Orchestra.

"These guys knew music -- I don't think there was a tune you could name that they couldn't play," Barrett said. He flew to performances all over the country on weekends.

Though his schedule was rigorous, it proved valuable.

"I don't think I could have taught unless I was actively a professional musician," Barrett said, adding that the two roles complemented each other. Barrett once accompanied Brenda Lee performing the tune "More," and when he returned home, he transcribed the music for his elementary school band.

Barrett's professional resume includes playing with the Peabody Conservatory Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, the Bach Society of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and several big-name bandleaders, including Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Cab Calloway. He has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Mechanic Theatre and at the inaugurations of the past four presidents.

Today, he leads the Bob Barrett Big Band and plays with a variety of seasonal groups.

"I've got a German band that does Oktoberfests and a great little Christmas band -- even a band for the Fourth of July," he said.

But Barrett says he is discovering that live music is less popular, making it hard for musicians to find work.

"When I was a kid, we had Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, the Les Brown band," Barrett said. "There was a circuit of clubs; bands would rotate. Now they're cutting, cutting every time. It's sad."

Walking upstairs from his studio, Barrett recounted an anecdote about a trumpet-trading meeting he had with Doc Severinsen. Standing in the kitchen, Nelly turned to listen, her eyes smiling. It is clear she likes him, very much.


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it.

E-mail Janet at, or call 410-313-8276. Janet also has a Web site: www.janet

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