Bill and Joan

NOTE … if I don’t start this story now, I never will.  So … this will be updated from time to time … sort of like Wikipedia … since all of this is written down from two or three perspectives — all I have to do it find the material and read it.  This first attempt is purely from memory … 

It was probably 1948 or so when Bill Scott left Zanesville , OH to follow some of his local friends who had made it to NYC , finally, after years of dreaming of it —  like only those who live in places like Zanesville can dream about that place.  Those friends of his were full-blown jazz musicians, or trying to be , having recently graduated from the Cincinnati conservatory.  Some of them stayed in NY, some became professional jazz musicians, and some left.  Bill stayed , since he had not much to go back to, at least from his perspective.

It would be unfair and probably not accurate at all to call the place he left “Hillbilly Country” as he did himself so often, but there was no denying that he grew up poor,  a literal child of the Great Depression, with a father that came back from the first world war gassed, broken, and barely able to work.   For a boy who threw himself into books, art and music as a way to escape the limitations of the place,  there were very few choices but to leave.  And so he did. First to Cincinnati , and not long after,  to New York.

He met Joan Sherman at Brentano’s in the 1950’s.  She was a clerk there,  and a full-time art student at Cooper Union.  He had found work there as a “security guard”  where, because of his small size, was able to make himself nearly invisible hiding in the rafters.  The management gave him a walkie-talkie and told him to report any suspicious behavior,  but what he mainly did was spy on Joan, as she sat behind the counter and sold books.  She noticed him, too, and one day, the story goes, when she spotted him on break hanging around the back office , she broke off the all the pencil points in the front-desk container so she would have a reason to go back and strike up a conversation with him as she sharpened them.

Joan came from a completely different background in every way imaginable.  Her father, Robert Sherman , made it to Yale at the age of 15 — an event made more amazing by the fact that he had no money and was Jewish.  His father had recently died, and he worked double overtime to take care of the family and finish  school.  In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, he and his wife Ann Margulies started a family with two children – Joan and her older brother Phil.    Bob soon got a job with RKO Pictures and rose in the industry to the point at which Joan remembered having “help” to clean the house and cook,  trips to Europe,  and membership in the “Club.”  As a member of the upper-middle class, attending Cooper Union in 1950’s in a family of Jewish intellectuals, Bill Scott represented the polar opposite of the young man that her parents could have wished for.

To the horror and chagrin of her parents,  in the mid 1950’s, Joan moved in with Bill to a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village shared with a group of young jazz musicians.  Bob Brookmeyer, Tony Fruscella, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Phil Sunkel were some of the people they hung out with on a daily basis.  But there was also the “art scene,” as it was described by Bill, which consisted of Joan’s friends — people like Joseph Raffael , Linda Rosenkrantz, Christopher Finch and others.  It’s all written down in great detail, and when it’s possible, those stories will find their way onto this or Bill’s site.  For now, I’m afraid we have only this somewhat thin, vague, second-hand memory.

Side story about Phil Sunkel.  He is a remarkable man,  and I’m sorry that I have lost touch with him.  He served in Italy in WW2,  and was introduced to wine in what had to have been the best way – wandering around rural Italy in the 40’s when America and their soldiers were viewed as liberators.   He left the Jazz scene pretty early to grow grapes in upstate NY for awhile.  His father, Phil Sunkel, Sr., had a wonderful correspondence with my father.  Phil, Sr. was absolutely brilliant and an excellent writer.  I seriously doubt we have any of his letters, but I wish we did, because I remember as a teenager reading them and being inspired to  … become intelligent, suppose you could say.  Phil, Jr. was no slouch either.  Shortly after my father died, my brother and I had dinner with him and his wife, and we drank  some wine to Bill’s memory, and listened to Phil’s stories about the Jazz scene in NY in the 1950’s.   At one point my heart swelled when he said that Bill lived on very much through his sons.  This was all possible because Phil moved up the Hudson Valley right around the time my father was getting ready to die.  Dad and I visited him a few times, and during one of those times, Phil introduced me to the concept of White Burgundy wine.   The other thing he tried to introduce us to was something he called “Son” Cuban Jazz, which he was exposed to in the 1940’s, where he hung out in Havana for awhile and played with a remarkable set of musicians.  In 1997, however, before the Buena Vista Social Club appeared (thank you Mr. Ry Cooder!) there was very little anywhere you could find it.  Back in those days, record stores were still around (remember them?), and Dad and I visited a few, looking for what Phil was talking about.  We couldn’t find it.  The album was released just a few months before he died, and so I didn’t have the conversation I wished I had with him about it, because the documentary came out in 1999, and that’s when I learned about it.  It was EXACTLY the music Phil was trying to tell us about — but as we all know, those guys he played with in the 40’s were basically living in the slums in Havana, and were about 85 years old in 1997.  They only saw the light of public day thanks to the tenacious efforts of Ry Cooder , which was marvelously documented by Wim Wenders.

Bill and Joan were married February 29, 1960.  The pressure and reaction from Joan’s family was such that they fled to Wyoming to have their first child in 1961.  That would be me.  There,  they were somewhat sustained by the spectacular scenery of the Wind River range, and by a good friendship with some musicians who had left NY to find a place to raise a family in Montana.  But before long, they returned to the East Coast, where family and like-minded people were to be found.  After bumping around for a few rough years, trying to scratch out a living in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania , they finally found a home in the Hudson Valley – in a small town in Orange county where Joan’s parents purchased and gave them a tiny house with which to start a family.  They arrived in winter, 1966.