Hazel Scott: Playing the Right Notes

My family is musical. We all play at least one instrument, several are music teachers, more than a few perform with professional groups, and all kinds of music are appreciated. My grandparents – especially my grandmother the piano teacher – loved jazz. So, perhaps you can understand why I was mystified when I discovered Hazel Scott for the first time a few weeks ago.

Hazel Scott was a Trinidadian-born jazz pianist, a musical prodigy who taught herself to play the piano at three and was given a scholarship to Juilliard at eight. She performed multiple types of music – including classical, jazz and boogie woogie – but her own style was more than just notes on a page. Hazel could take the usual compositions and shake them up until they became something new, a style called “swinging the classics” wherein she integrated Beethoven with Count Basie. She was fun to listen to (still is).

Hazel started playing in the jazz clubs in New York as a teenager – including renowned places like the Cotton Club and the Café Society – alongside people like Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Louie Armstrong and hosted her own radio show when she was just sixteen. At 18, she made her Broadway debut and in her early 20s, the commercial recordings of her “Bach to Boogie” Carnegie Hall performances broke sales records nationwide.

Because she was so incredibly talented and beautiful, barriers just seemed to fall out of her way. Hazel was one of the first African-American women to appear in major Hollywood pictures, she performed in sold-out venues across the country and, by the ripe old age of 25, she was earning what would be today close to a $1,000,000 per year. In 1950, she was the first African-American to have her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show, often singing in one of the seven languages she spoke. Since her profile was so well-known – and given what she could do with the piano – I was completely baffled that I’d never heard of her before.

But here’s why: Hazel was no shrinking violet. She was a strong and powerful African-American woman when it wasn’t safe to be so and she set out to change minds in the ways only an artist can. Hazel was fearless, something she attributed to the proud, strong-willed, and independent-minded women who raised her. All of her performance contracts included a clause that required forfeiture if there was a dividing line between the races. When she found herself escorted from Austin by Texas Rangers after declining to perform, she merely asked, “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?”

She dealt with Hollywood in the same no-nonsense way. After watching how poorly artists like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Butterfly McQueen were treated, Hazel challenged this by demanding pay equal to her white colleagues and refusing to play subservient roles. She insisted that she only play herself and that she’d have total control over her wardrobe. It was this last aspect of her contract that was her undoing with Hollywood. Hazel refused to wear a costume that she believed stereotyped blacks and staged a strike that lasted three days before they gave in. She won the battle but lost the war when her film career ended over the dispute. Hazel didn’t seem to care: “I’ve been brash all my life, and it’s gotten me into a lot of trouble. But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.”

Hazel was so committed to civil rights that, in 1949, she brought a suit against the owners of a Washington restaurant when a waitress refused to serve her and her traveling companion because of their race. She won the case, a victory that helped inspire civil rights organizations to pressure the Washington state legislature to enact the Public Accommodations Act in 1953. As she memorably said, “Who ever walked behind anyone to freedom? If we can’t go hand in hand, I don’t want to go.”

Given all of her talent and accomplishments, why in the world is Hazel Scott not better known? Why is Nat King Cole often credited as being the first African-American to host his own television show when, in fact, it was Hazel Scott? The answer, sadly, is that she was brought down (indirectly and directly) by two men: her husband, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Joseph McCarthy.

In the early 1940s, Hazel was wooed by a preacher from Harlem who was running for Congress. Powell was married at the time of their affair, so their relationship was scandalous even after they wed in 1945. They were still quite the power couple (the Beyoncé and Jay Z of their day) since she was a gifted artist and he was the first black Congressman from the east coast. However, it came at a cost. Powell’s controversial reputation caused Hazel to gain notoriety at the same time that, after agreeing not to perform jazz anymore, she lost some of her fans. Powell thought it would disturb his congregations so they prioritized his career over hers. This wouldn’t have mattered as much had it not been for Joseph McCarthy. But when she came up against him, she needed all the popularity she once had and she’d been compromised.

Three months after the debut of her groundbreaking television show, Hazel’s name appeared on an unofficial list of suspected Communists. She’d been a troublemaker and this was her reward. Hazel was warned not to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee but she was unafraid. “It has never been my practice to choose the popular course. When others lie as naturally as they breathe, I become frustrated and angry.” She challenged the committee members and, after hours of fierce questioning, ended by requesting, “…that your committee protect those Americans who have honestly, wholesomely, and unselfishly tried to perfect this country and make the guarantees in our Constitution live. The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help, to serve. Our country needs us more today than ever before. We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to Hazel Scott: she was written off. Her show was cancelled a week after her appearance on Capitol Hill and her concert bookings dried up. Shortly after, she divorced Powell and took her son with her to join the flourishing black expatriate community in Paris. Even though she returned to the U.S. ten years later, Hazel never regained her initial popularity (rhythm & blues, Motown and British bands replaced her music) and she died from cancer at the age of 61. But that shouldn’t be the end of her story because she deserves so much more.

It’s time to take another look at Hazel Scott, a profoundly gifted musician with the soul of a warrior. There are videos on YouTube of her playing (you must check out the video below!) and her music has amazing resonance and energy. We can continue to listen and celebrate her genius. But, perhaps most of all, it’s time for us to emulate her fierce courage and her refusal to let “the vicious slanders of little and petty men” go uncontested. Since speaking out gave meaning to Hazel’s extraordinary life, it can do the same for ours. And if we follow in her footsteps by challenging injustice, then she will no longer be forgotten.

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