The din of restaurant chatter and the clinking of silverware was interrupted by the sound of a cello being tuned. Ice cubes clattered into glasses, martinis were shaken, beer was poured. Outside, a neon-pink sign lit up: ‘Hope and Anchor,’ it read, casting a pink glow on the glass windows on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. Inside, the band was starting its weekly jam-session.
Leading the band was Ray Scro, a 64-year-old saxophone player. Scro was tall, slender, and balding, dressed in a white shirt and pants. A jazz performer by night, Scro works as a high school music teacher by day. He realized early in life that it wasn’t fame that drew him to music, but the desire for community. Music, in his book, is the cement that glues together families and communities, transcending the borders of language. “Sometimes I play for a crowd of thousands, and they don’t understand English and I don’t understand their language,” Scro said. “And yet I’m able to communicate my feelings to them.”
This desire to connect to people led Scro to start a weekly jam space in this café, run by the son of his band’s cellist. “Artists have a need to express. They get hit by something, they have to get it off their chest,” Scro said. He talked of two former students he is particularly fond of, who graduated from high school recently: Ahmed had lost his arm and his eyes in a bombing in Iraq, but he plays the piano beautifully with one hand, Scro said. His best buddy, Newang, doesn’t have arms from the elbows down, and he sang along with Ahmed. “Music united them,” Scro said.
Scro came from a family of musicians, starting with his grandfather down to his nephews and nieces. When Scro was a boy, his mother would wake him by singing, “Wake up, little Susie, wake up!” after the classic song by the Everly Brothers. At eight, he was playing clarinet for a band led by his teacher. But Scro never believed that music could be a potential career until he felt the frustration of studying math at college, for which he had been awarded a full scholarship by Pace University. So he made the hard decision and switched to Brooklyn College to study music.
Starting out was difficult in the competitive climate of New York. Scro waited tables, drove cabs, and worked as a mechanic to pay the bills. He got married and had a baby daughter to care for. So he left his job repairing musical instruments and forayed into what was to later become his life’s work: teaching.
For the last eighteen years, Scro has taught at Curtis High School in Staten Island, a school that, according to Scro, has a mix of kids from all kinds of backgrounds. “You don’t learn anything until you’ve learnt it on your own,” he says. “If you can get kids to discover something, that’s really something.” Because jazz is an art form that is soulful, emotional, and improvisational, he said, it can be pretty hard to teach.
At the high school, “I’m known as the pie-guy,” Scro said with a laugh, referencing a pie-throwing tradition that started at Curtis High School when Scro threw his first pie in the face of a colleague who was retiring—bringing a lot of laughs. Last week, when one of Scro’s co-teachers was about to retire, she said to Scro, “Ray, you can go and buy me a pie now.’”
While he taught, Scro continued to play music with different bands, doing gigs and traveling for shows. He often played 90 to 100 jobs a year; and has played with musicians like Bill Crow and trained under the jazz legend Lee Konitz, from whom he picked up much of his pedagogy and his techniques of improvisation—which he now improvises on for his own students.
Jerrold Kavanagh is a former student of Scro’s who works as a full-time musician. When Kavanagh was younger, he said, he wasn’t confident about his music skills. But one day—he recalled—his teacher said to him, “Jerrold, you have the potential to become a really great player.” This gave Kavanagh the confidence to strive towards music as a career. “It’s a hard life. If you don’t have experiences that you can look back on as landmarks, you get very lost,” Kavangh said. Now Kavanagh comes back to play drums with Scro every chance he gets.
A few years ago, Scro and his wife separated, and his daughter moved to New Orleans. According to Scro, music can act as an anchor in a person’s life in times of difficulty. “Whether you play an instrument or not, music is very primal, and it’s something that everybody relates to.” He still likes to listen to the songs his mother used to play on the piano. One of her favorite songs was ‘Que Sera Sera.’ “Now all I have to do is play it, and I think of her.”
At Hope and Anchor, Scro took a break between songs to urge his audience to join him. “If any of you are players, come and jam with us!” A shy young man stepped forward and the pianist gave him his seat. The eyes of the crowd drifted towards the band as they started their next song. The saxophone glittered golden in the dim light, rising as Scro arched his back. The music rose to a crescendo.