Growing Up With Gil Scott-Heron: In Loving Memory
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Gil Scott Heron's death last week at the age of 62 stimulated a wave of appreciation from critics and the jazz and hip hop communities who recognized his unique contribution to American and African-American culture. To me, it also brought a flurry of emotional emails and phone calls. Those of us who went to high school with Gil from 1963-'67 shared our memories of the scintillating and joyous character we knew as teenagers at Fieldston, the private Ethical Culture school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx attended then, as now, primarily by the sons and daughters of wealthy Jewish families. Gil was one of five black kids out of a class of around 100.
In 2007 Gil was up for parole after about a year into the last of his stints in jail -- he had developed a terrible addiction to crack cocaine that haunted him until the end of his life. I was one of several high school friends who wrote letters to the parole board about his character and value to society. At the same time I sent him a personal letter about what his work had meant to the world. He responded with a long handwritten reply in which he said that his time at Fieldston had "opened new worlds" for him. I suspect that his gracious words contained both genuine emotion, and a dollop of show biz bullshit. But there is no question that being exposed to his spirit opened new worlds for all of us.
Until the age of 12, Gil had grown up in Jackson, Tennessee, raised primarily by his grandmother. After her death he moved to New York City to live with his mother. For a couple of years he attended Dewitt Clinton School where an English teacher, recognizing his literary prowess, recommended him for the scholarship at Fieldston that brought him to us.
The kid who remained the closest to him was Fred Baron, who also entered Fieldston in ninth grade. Fred lived in Peter Cooper Village not far from the mostly Puerto Rican housing project where Gil and his mother lived on West 18th St. in Chelsea, which was a far cry from the trendy gentrified neighborhood it is today. Most Fieldston kids lived on the Upper West Side and Fred and Gil shared the last subway stop after school. Gil's mom was very strict and insisted on him being home at a certain time. But Bobbi Heron liked the Barons.
Fred recalls fondly that "Gil slept over at my apartment one or two nights a week. Gil's dad had left his family when Gil was a baby so he adopted my dad." Fieldston was a bastion of liberal politics (more than 95 percent of the student body would "vote" for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in a mock election held the next year) but Baron's father Jerry was a conservative libertarian. "Gil would argue with my dad night after night. My dad gave him Ayn Rand books to read and Gil, although he was still learning, believed in socialism and had a radical view on just about everything. Neither of them changed the other's mind but they became very close."
At 14, Gil had a boy's gleeful sense of fun but physically he was a man, gangly but almost 6 feet tall, the beginnings of a mustache (exotic in Fieldston in 1963) and already possessed of the deep voice the virtuoso jazz bassist Ron Carter was later to describe as "having been made for Shakespeare." I would certainly have been intimidated by him had he not been so friendly.