Hazel Scott is haunting me. At one time she was the toast of the jazz and popular music world, an internationally renowned pianist, and top-selling recording artist. She headlined New York’s Café Society. She soloed at Carnegie Hall. She was featured in five Hollywood films. She was glamorous, talented, famous, and rich. Her controversial marriage to civil rights activist and U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was big-time media fodder, dissected and celebrated in the press for years. Three decades before Oprah, she was the first African-American woman to host her own television show.
And then Hazel Scott disappeared. From the peak of fame, she slid into oblivion.
What happened to Hazel Scott? Why today do we admire and listen to so many of Scott’s contemporaries, musical greats such as Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, and Ella Fitzgerald — none of whom were more famous or adored than Scott in her prime — but we never even hear her name?
So, who is Hazel Scott? And why has she been all but erased from history?
Hazel Scott was born on the West Indies island of Trinidad, in 1920. Her mother was a classical pianist. Her father, a scholar and intellectual. By the time she was three years old, Hazel was well known around the neighborhood as a piano prodigy. When she was four, she and her mother moved to Harlem. When she was eight, her mother took her to audition at Julliard. Although the minimum age of admission was 16, one Julliard professor was so impressed with the little girl’s dazzling rendering of a Rachmaninoff prelude that he arranged to have her admitted into Julliard as his own private pupil. He called her “a genius.”
Then the Great Depression hit. Money was scarce, and Hazel’s mother had to be extra-resourceful to find it. All girl bands were big at the time, but clearly none needed a classical pianist. So Mrs. Scott taught herself the saxophone. And she taught herself jazz. For several years, she played in various all-women’s bands, eventually forming her own.
Mrs. Scott hoped that her daughter would pursue the classical piano career that she herself could not. But teenage Hazel had other ideas. She wanted to play jazz. For awhile, she played piano in her mother’s own jazz band, honing her chops.
While still in high school, Hazel debuted at the popular Roseland Ballroom. Her act followed Count Basie. She was a huge hit. During this period, she also hosted her own radio show on WOR in New York City, playing complicated classical numbers that showcased her piano virtuosity. But it was at Manhattan’s Yacht Club, working as the intermission pianist, where she invented The Hazel Scott Sound. To avoid duplicating numbers that others played, she decided to “swing the classics.” She would take a classical number by Bach or Mozart or Liszt, speed it up, then add syncopation and a strong left hand. Hazel wasn’t the first to try this. The style was known as “jazzing up the classics.” But to really pull it off took a mastery of classical music, swing, and the ability to improvise. Hazel had it all.
Hazel’s career was gathering steam. Then, at age 19, came her big break. It happened at the legendary Café Society nightclub. And it was Billie Holiday who made sure it happened.
Café Society was the first fully integrated nightclub in America. Opened in 1938, the club was the creation of Barney Josephson, a left-leaning progressive who wanted to challenge the de facto segregation of nightspots throughout the country. Even places like Harlem’s Cotton Club, which featured black performers, was a “Whites Only” establishment when it came to the clientele.
Café Society became instantly legendary on its opening night when headliner Billie Holiday debuted a new song, “Strange Fruit.”
Southern trees bare strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
This powerful song about lynching became Holiday’s signature number. Crowds flocked to Café Society to hear her sing it.
Josephson envisioned Café Society as an American version of the European political cabaret. Besides featuring the top talent of the day, it was often the scene of left-wing fundraisers. Café Society quickly became New York’s hottest night spot. When Billie Holiday had to cut her engagement short, she requested that Josephson replace her with 19-year-old Hazel Scott. He did. Hazel and her jazzed-up classics were an instant sensation.
A year later, she recorded her first solo album, Swinging the Classics, which sold well and received rave reviews. Now a shining star at the center of Café Society’s exhilarating intellectual and cultural scene, Hazel’s friends and fans came to include Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Paul Robeson.
Hazel was making lots of money. She bought a house in upstate New York and was chauffeured to and from her performances. She had her hands insured by Lloyds of London.
Even as her fame and fortune grew, Hazel remained true to her values. She was outspoken about her views, particularly regarding racial injustice. She had it written into her contracts that she would not play before segregated audiences. This limited where she could perform, but she didn’t care. And, if she arrived at a venue only to find it was in fact racially segregated, she simply walked out.
When Hazel was 22, she a landed role in a Broadway musical. After seeing the play, New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that Hazel Scott, “has the most incandescent personality of any one in the show.” It was inevitable that Hollywood came calling.
In the early 1940s, when Hazel Scott showed up in Hollywood, African Americans in the movies were nearly always portrayed as buffoons, incompetents, servants, or villains. For African American women, the roles were essentially limited to maids or hookers.
Hazel knew all this. And she wasn’t going to play along. She had always been committed to projecting an image of pride and dignity while performing. She wasn’t going to change that now. Right off the bat, she refused to play any demeaning or subservient roles. She refused to play a maid, mammy or prostitute. On four different occasions she turned down the chance to play a singing maid.
Even more astoundingly, and showing exactly how much clout Hazel Scott wielded, she had it written into her contract that she would play only one single character in any film she acted in: herself. Her credit would always read: Hazel Scott as Herself. She also had it written into all her film contracts that she had final say over what music she performed and what clothing she wore in each movie.
To each demand, Hollywood acquiesced. They wanted Hazel Scott however they could get her.
Between her recording successes, concert appearances, and film acting, Hazel was becoming one of the best known and highest paid African-American entertainers in the country.
Then her career hit a roadblock. She was working on the 1943 Mae West musical, The Heat’s On, for Columbia Pictures. In the movie’s final scene, Hazel leads a group of African-American soldiers and their sweethearts in a rousing song and dance number sending them off to war. Rehearsals went great. Until Hazel discovered that the director and costume designer were planning to have the women wear grubby aprons during the scene. Hazel hit the roof. She told the director that no black woman would ever wear a dirty apron when seeing her man off to war. The director told Hazel that how others were costumed was none of her business. Her contract only stipulated that she had control over her own attire.
So Hazel went on strike. She refused to perform her scene until the women’s costumes were changed. After a three-day stand-off, the director finally consented to her demand. The women’s aprons were switched to attractive floral-print dresses.
When Columbia President Harry Cohn got wind of the situation and all the money Hazel’s strike cost the studio, he vowed that Hazel Scott would never set foot on another movie studio lot as long as he lived. Other than completing work on a previously contracted film, she didn’t.
Returning to New York, Hazel resumed her music career. To help the war effort against Hitler, she performed for servicemen at hospitals and at the Stage Door Canteen. She became a pin-up favorite among soldiers.
Then she fell in love.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. — Baptist minister, leading civil rights activist in Harlem, first black New York Councilman, and now, in 1945, newly elected Congressman of the United States — was twelve years older than Hazel. Powell was already married when he and Hazel fell in love. They began a secret affair, and then, just four days after his divorce, they married.
The Scott-Powells were the power couple of the moment. Both were accomplished, admired, and respected in their fields. Both were politically progressive and committed to civil rights. Americans, both black and white, were fascinated with this glamorous, controversial, attractive pair. Photographers followed them. The press wrote cover stories about them. They were the most famous black couple in America.
It seemed as if life couldn’t get any better. But it did. In 1950, Hazel was approached by the DuMont Television Network to host and star in her own television show.
DuMont was the fourth and smallest network in the infant TV industry. With a skinnier budget then the Big Three networks, DuMont learned to do more with less. And, they took risks. Dumont produced the pioneering Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show starring Jackie Gleason and his Honeymooners; Captain Video and his Video Rangers, a futuristic sci-fi series; and The Hazel Scott Show, the first television show hosted by an African-American woman.
The Hazel Scott Show premiered on April 14, 1950. The program was a then-standard fifteen minutes, during which time Hazel played the piano, sang, and chatted with the television audience. She was the whole show. The program garnered excellent ratings and was expanded from once-a-week to three times a week.
And then the roof caved in.
“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Blacklisting in the entertainment industry had been underway since 1947 when the Hollywood Ten, a group of leftist writers, directors and producers, were called before the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and questioned about their political beliefs. All ten refused to answer, citing their First Amendment right to freedom of belief and association. All ten were sent to prison. Then, in 1950, a right-wing journal put out a booklet called Red Channels. The booklet listed 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others in the entertainment industry suspected of being subversives. The list included Orson Welles, Lillian Hellman, Langston Hughes, Leonard Bernstein, and Hazel Scott.
During the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War era, just having one’s name in Red Channels was enough to get a person fired from one’s job and blacklisted from future employment. In an effort to save her career, Hazel volunteered to testify before HUAC on her own behalf. Friends told her not to go, but she went ahead anyway. During her testimony she denied being a Communist or Communist sympathizer. However, she also challenged the morality of HUAC and the entire blacklisting enterprise. In her testimony, she said: “It has been possible for all sorts of witch doctors, pseudo experts, and self-appointed judges to step forward and offer their particular brand of subversive selection…This is the day for the professional gossip, the organized rumor monger, and the smear artist with the spray gun.”
Her testimony made big news. One week after she appeared before HUAC, The Hazel Scott Show was cancelled.
And it wasn’t just the television show; following her HUAC testimony, Hazel’s soaring career took a swift and “unexplained” plunge. After being in high demand for years, concert bookings were suddenly harder to come by. What’s more, her marriage was falling apart.
At the nadir of both her personal and professional life, Hazel went overseas. She moved to Paris, a city that had long been a mecca for African-American artists, writers, and musicians.
Paris suited Hazel. Her life began to turn around. Her elegant Paris apartment became a gathering place for ex-pats and old friends including Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk. She gave sold-out concerts throughout Europe and around the globe. She recorded new albums. In 1963, at the time of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, she joined James Baldwin and others in front of the U.S. Embassy in Paris to protest racial injustice in America.
Eventually, like many voluntary exiles, Hazel decided to return to the United States. She wanted to spend time with her son and grandson. And, she simply wanted to go back home. However, upon returning to New York in 1967, she found that the music scene had passed her by. Traditional jazz had long been eclipsed by bebop and modern jazz, and now jazz itself was being nearly buried by rock ‘n roll. It was becoming difficult for jazz artists to make a living. And doubly so for Hazel Scott. She didn’t do modern. She wasn’t cool.
In the final years of her life, Hazel played the occasional club date, devoting most of her time to being a doting grandmother. She died of cancer in 1981. She was just 61 years old.
So what did ever happen to Hazel Scott? Essentially, Cold War hysteria, like the blade of a guillotine, cut short the career of one of the most sought-after and admired performers in America.
But before the blade fell, Hazel Scott mattered. As an African-American woman, as a pianist, singer, film actress, and television personality, she was an individual of sophistication, intelligence, and dignity. She paved the way on television for entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Diahann Carroll, and Oprah Winfrey. She was outspoken about her views, particularly regarding injustice and inequality. She took risks. She stood by her principles. And she paid the price.
Hazel Scott deserves never to be forgotten.
From guest contributor Eve Goldberg