Riverhead’s Bob Barta: The Spirit of Jazz

Bob Barta is a Long Island treasure. Just who is Bob Barta, you might ask. Well, If you don’t know, then you are not having as much fun on the East End as you should be.

President of the historic Vail Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead, Barta is a dedicated community member committed to bringing innovative and exciting entertainment to the 130-year-old facility. But that’s not why you should know him. He was an accounting professor at Suffolk Community College in the ‘90s and now teaches the History of Jazz there. But that’s not why, either. He’s a mad-crazy talented banjo player with a scary textbook knowledge of the jazz world and a familiarity with almost all of the greats—but even that’s not why you should know Bob Barta. You should know Bob Barta because this guy has the spirit of music in his soul! Talking to him is like singing out loud, or playing drums in a marching band, or doing cartwheels in a parade. His energy and passion are boundless and infectious.

Barta’s love of music was fostered by his family, with sing-alongs from Mitch Miller records at his grandparents’ house. “My family recorded my first vocal on tape at 2 years old…the Schaefer beer jingle,” he laughs. His interest picked up when The Sting became a hit film, featuring the classic ragtime of Scott Joplin.

When friend and neighbor Carolyn Cramp, challenged him to join her in banjo lessons, they found instruments in a local shop and scheduled instruction with Jim Harkins, who later played with the Sammy Spear Orchestra on the Jackie Gleason TV show. Along the way he learned chord progressions and music theory.

Jamming with friends, The Singing Banjos coalesced and in 1976, the group played intermission at Riverhead High School for the Peconic Barbershop Choir, followed by a Westhampton Beach PTA event in 1977. By 1979, he hit the big time, playing at the campaign kickoff for George H.W. Bush. (He got the gig through his grandma.)

Barta met his wife Sherrie at college. They married in 1990. “What took me away from music…was a desire to support the family with more money along with added credentials,” he says. He completed an MBA while working and going to school at night while Sherrie completed a BFA. Barta had been elected department head and was thinking seriously about going to law school for intellectual property. “Juggling all that…took a substantial amount of time, virtually pulling me out of
music altogether.”

But life has a way of intervening. And on New Year’s Eve 1996, it did just that. Sherrie had a grand mal seizure. “She conked out and they rushed her to the hospital,” Barta remembers. In one of those life-altering moments, they discovered that Sherri had a brain tumor. Barta took a leave of absence from his job and researched treatments for her brain cancer.

Music is its own drug,” says Barta. “It takes me away into another place.” As Sherrie was going through experimental treatment at the National Institute of Health, he got a call. “An old friend who was a banjo player had passed away, and the guys needed a banjo player for a recording… Sherri was on the path to recovery, and it started me on the path back to music.”

Barta and the theater he helms have a lot in common: transitions and a return to their roots. On May 11 the Vail Leavitt will host a return engagement of Mondo Vaude, a unique confection of burlesque, vaudeville, sideshow, and jazz that played to an overflowing house in the fall. He continues to mine the entertainment world to bring unique acts to the music house. The VLMH has to “determine its own fate,” Barta says. “We have to be involved in production and the quality of what comes in. We have a chance to do things more out of the box. We keep moving…”

Barta can be seen (and heard) often at Bonnie Jean’s in Southold, strumming his banjo and crooning some good ol’ tunes with his Sunnyland Jazz Band, while Sherrie smiles from a table nearby. Go, listen, eat some good ribs. Catch his spirit.

vailleavitt.org, sunnylandjazz.com

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