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Looking Back at The Extraordinary Life of Hazel Scott

Getty Images/ Gilles Petard/Redferns
Piano virtuoso Hazel Scott, 1950

It was 2008 when I authored the biography, "HAZEL SCOTT: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC." At that time, Hazel Scott’s name conjured fond but distant memories among an older generation.

They remembered her—a jazz chanteuse sitting bare shouldered at the grand piano, beautifully gowned, playing classical compositions by Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt that she would transform into something sensational, highly syncopated and swinging.

Some recalled her gorgeous image and captivating performances in big Hollywood pictures like I Dood It and Rhapsody in Blue, while others remembered her solely as the wife of the first Black congressman from the East Coast, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. But for a vast majority, it was a name they simply didn't know. 

A headliner at New York City’s first integrated nightclub Café Society between 1939 and 1945, Hazel Scott was one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the world and one of the most famous…yet, over time, her legacy was lost in history.

As is the case for most biographers, research for the book was a thrilling but arduous affair and happened over the course of many years. And it was more than just research, it was an unearthing—at times a treasure hunt, at other times a wild goose chase where every archival clipping, every show notice, rare photograph, interview, and feature in the Black press was hard to come by but of immeasurable value.

And what an embarrassment of riches it would have been to have had the chance to converse with the coterie of musicians with whom she considered some of her closest friends—Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Art Tatum and Mary Lou Williams.

Nonetheless, it was the help of her son, Adam C. Powell III, who generously shared with me his mother’s personal effects, journal writings, musical transcriptions as well as hours, weeks and months of delightful conversation I still cherish, that enabled me to piece together what Hazel called her “kaleidoscopic life.”  

Born in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad on June 11, 1920 and raised in Harlem at the height of the artistic and literary renaissance, Scott’s early musical talent was cultivated by her mother, Alma Long Scott—a concert pianist who would eventually become a self-taught jazz saxophonist and leader of her own all-girl band.

Keenly aware of her daughter’s musical gift, Alma insisted she audition at the prestigious Juilliard School at age eight, ignoring the school’s minimum age requirement of 16. Hazel gave a rousing audition of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor, after which, school director Frank Damrosch decided to make an exception for the child prodigy—she promptly began private study under the tutelage of staff professor Oscar Wagner.

It wasn’t long before her career caught up to her talent. While still a teenager, Scott shared the bill with the Count Basie Orchestra, hosted her own radio show on WOR, and made her Broadway debut in the hit 1938 musical, Sing Out the News.

Her star turn came when Alma and close family friend, jazz legend Billie Holiday, hatched a plan to have Hazel audition for club owner, Barney Josephson. He gave her one chance…and it turned out to be the only one she needed. She wowed audiences with her vivacious presence and command of the keys, earning her top billing as “The Darling of Café Society.”

Throughout the 1940s, Hazel Scott was a household name, traveling the world with her “Bach to Boogie” repertoire under contracts that stipulated her outright refusal to perform before segregated audiences. Her demands were clear—if she arrived and Black audience members were seated in a balcony and whites on the main floor, it meant immediate forfeiture. She would be paid, but she would not perform. As far as Hazel was concerned: “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?”

By the time Hollywood beckoned, her reputation as a consummate professional but no-nonsense businesswoman preceded her. Under the management of Barney Josephson, she agreed to  appear in five films in just two short years, but under very strict contractual conditions—she would never wear a maid’s uniform or play a subservient character of any kind (her own gowns and fine jewelry would suffice), and her billing would always be: “Hazel Scott as Herself.”

Her demands were clear. If she arrived and Black audience members were seated in a balcony and whites on the main floor, it meant immediate forfeiture.

Hazel Scott’s marriage to the crusading Congressman and prominent pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1945 made the Powells the most high-profile Black couple in America. They were hounded by the press and even spied on by the FBI during their international travels, where Hazel performed to sell-out crowds across Europe while Adam visited U.S. troops to investigate the living conditions of Black soldiers. A dynamic duo, they fought for the rights of Black Americans in their respective arenas—Hazel in the entertainment industry, Adam on the floor of Congress.

Her activism on behalf of Black Americans, women and artists made Hazel Scott an easy target during the McCarthy Era, where many entertainers were suspected of being subversive communists working against the interest of the United States. But for Hazel, a proud Caribbean-American—she called herself an “American by choice”—the blacklist would not hold sway, nor soften her tongue. “I’ve been brash all my life,” she once said, “and it’s gotten me into a whole lot of trouble. But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.”

When her name appeared in Red Channels and CounterAttack, the right wing journals that tracked suspected communists in film, television, and radio, she insisted on going before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to defend her good name.

Her timing could not have been worse.

Just a few months prior to her September 1950 appearance before HUAC, Hazel had been offered a groundbreaking opportunity to host her own television show on the DuMont Network, making her the first Black performer to have the honor.

The Hazel Scott Show premiered in July of that year to solid ratings and outstanding reviews. “Hazel Scott has a neat little show in this modest package,” wrote Variety. “Most engaging element in the air is the Scott personality, which is dignified,  yet relaxed and versatile.” It was the perfect showcase for her extraordinary talent and also a great gig for  the wife and new mother (the role she loved most of all), who would now be able to stop touring and work from New York as her base.

But by the fall of 1950, Hazel Scott was no longer employable. Her HUAC appearance had backfired. Her engagements were canceled, her reputation ruined, and even her marriage was showing signs of strain.

Eventually, she would seek solace in France. Along with her young son, Adam III, Hazel struck a new path, joining the Black expatriate community of artists and scholars living in Paris. It was there that she was able to heal her emotional wounds and reconcile the anger and frustration she felt about American injustice. Later in life, she concluded, “I believe America is as big and as strong as its weakest point…it  is up to the Negro to be the conscience of this great land of ours.”  

“Tough but fair,” as jazz drummer Max Roach described her, Hazel never wore what she called “the activist tag.” She didn’t need it. As far as she was concerned, she was the embodiment of it. No labels  necessary. Her form of activism would be by example—through her presentation on stage, her  professional integrity, and a musical legacy that lived up to her tremendous gift…all of which affirmed Black excellence, Black beauty, and Black genius.

Known for swinging the classics, Hazel Scott is now a fan favorite on social media and other popular platforms like YouTube. Web surfers are stunned by her beauty and pianistic chops, titillated by her showmanship. The film clip of her playing two pianos in The Heat’s On has been viewed online so many times, many now assume that that was her claim to fame…even though the tour-de-force performance was a one-time thing.

It is the height of irony that this thrilling three-minute performance of ‘The White Keys and the Black Keys’ was likely her worst Hollywood experience. It was on that Columbia Pictures set where she staged a three-day strike against the studio when the Black actresses in a different scene were given soiled costumes to wear. Still, her ability to give such an exuberant performance is a testament to her fortitude—she smiled through it, played and sang through it, then promptly left Hollywood soon after.  

Though she experienced commercial success as a recording artist on the Signature and Decca labels early in her career, only a handful of her popular albums remain in circulation. Her seminal recording from 1955, Relaxed Piano Moods (Debut), a collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach was inducted into NPR’s Basic Jazz Record Library back in 2001.

Had she lived beyond her 61 years—she passed in 1981 from pancreatic cancer—she likely would have pursued her other artistic dreams of writing sacred music, a jazz suite, an opera.

This past year marked her centennial where events of all kinds had been planned in her honor prior to the pandemic, and will still go forward in 2021. Now, over a decade after the biography was first published, I remain awed by the amount of passion and interest her contribution inspires. Hers truly is the pioneering journey of a pianist whose star rose, then fell, and now finds itself ascending once more for posterity.  

KAREN CHILTON is the author of HAZEL SCOTT: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist  from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC (University of Michigan Press) which she recently adapted for the screen.