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Hazel Scott

Hazel Dorothy Scott (aka Hazel Scott)
June 11, 1920 – October 2, 1981
Nationality: Trinidadian
Notable: Musician & Activist

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Show Notes

Hazel Dorothy Scott was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, her parents Alma Long and R. Thomas Scott only child. Her father was a West African scholar by way of Liverpool, England and her mother was a classically-trained pianist and music teacher. Scott was surrounded by music from a very early age but her family did not immediately notice her talent. Early traces of her ear for music were evident. As a small child, she would cry and scream when her mother’s students played incorrect notes. And by the age of three, she had learned to play the piano by ear.

Yet, it was not until she sat down at the piano one day that her mother took notice. Scott, without any guidance or instruction, began playing a gospel song that her grandmother had been regularly singing to her. From that point forward, her mother encouraged and supported Scott’s musical abilities and training. Their mother-daughter relationship would be incredibly strong for the remainder of their lives. And Scott’s mother would continue to be a pivotal and guiding figure in her life.

Unfortunately, at the very time that her talent for music and resulting relationship with her mother began to grow and expand, her relationship with her father began to wane. Scott’s parents’ marriage ended and Scott’s father became less of a presence in her life. Though it’s unclear if this occurred before or resulted from Scott moving with her mother and grandmother to Harlem, New York City, America.

The family struggled initially, while Scott’s mother worked as a domestic servant. But their circumstances improved after she taught herself to play the saxophone and joined an orchestra which allowed her to better provide for herself and the family. Back in her element, Scott’s mother formed relationships with many musicians of the day which would serve Scott well in her burgeoning career.

With connections in the music industry and her mother pulling strings, Scott secured an audition at Juilliard School of Music when she was only eight years old. The school had a minimum age requirement of 16 but Scott’s performance so impressed the judges that she was granted a scholarship and an invitation to take private lessons with one of the professors. Scott’s mother saw a future for her as a classical pianist but Scott was drawn to jazz. While still in her teens, Scott joined her mother’s all-female jazz band, hosted a radio show, and appeared on Broadway.

Despite these impressive early successes, Scott’s career took off when Billie Holliday, a family friend, helped her get an audition at the Café Society in Greenwich Village. Considered America’s first integrated nightclub, Holliday was ending an engagement at the club and recommended Scott as her replacement. Her fusion of classical music with jazz improvisations mesmerized audiences. Scott’s ability to also sing made her a standout performer. Within just a few weeks, what was supposed to be a temporary gig resulted in Scott becoming the venue’s headliner.

In 1940, Hazel Scott performed solo at Carnegie Hall and released her first album later that year. She was 20 years old. The 1940s would see Scott touring the world and making more appearances on Broadway. That decade would also see her perform in several Hollywood movies. An A-list star of the era, Scott used her pull to demand that audiences be integrated. She appeared in films mostly as herself playing the piano as she refused to perform the stereotypical roles of maids, slaves, and prostitutes to which Black actresses were typically limited.

The 1940s were also significant on a personal note. Scott became involved in a public affair with the then-married Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a politician and the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Following Powell’s divorce, he and Scott married in a glamorous and ostentatious event that drew thousands. The union would produce one child, a son they named Adam Clayton Powell III.

While a couple, the pair would use their notoriety to bring attention to various civil rights causes and campaigns. Amongst the most notable was Scott requesting to perform at Georgia’s Constitution Hall which was run by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). An arguably racist organization, DAR’s venues were Whites-only. Scott was rejected much as Marian Anderson had been before her. The P.R. scandal led to protests and public figures admonishing the organization. Scott instead performed at Carnegie Hall.

Yet, the latter half of the 1940s would bring problems. Scott’s demands for fair treatment in the movie industry which included a brief strike resulted in the film studios effectively ending her movie career. Now married and a mother, Powell wanted Scott to end her nightclub appearances to which she agreed. The couple would be spied on by the FBI and Scott’s activism attracted the attention of those claiming to be seeking out communists.

In July 1950, The Hazel Scott Show premiered and Scott became the first Black person to host a television show in America. It was a 15-minute program that aired three times per week where Scott mostly played the piano and sang. The show was an immediate hit and received high ratings. Yet, insinuations and accusations of Scott being a communist continued to grow. Other artists and entertainers were being labeled communist sympathizers and blacklisted.

Deciding to be proactive in defending her reputation, Scott volunteered to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in September 1950. Scott voiced support for artists and entertainers who had been accused and called for an end to blacklisting. Most importantly, she confirmed that she was not a communist. Yet within a week, her television show was canceled as were many of her performances. Her marriage also began a decline. The combination of these personal and professional difficulties led to Scott having a nervous breakdown the following year.

Hoping for a fresh start, Scott now separated from Powell relocated with her son to Paris in 1957. Several other artists and activists had relocated to Europe, Paris specifically, in hopes of escaping America’s racism and communist witch-hunting. Scott was well-received by Europe’s audiences and became an active member of Paris’ Black expatriates. Following her divorce from Powell in 1960, Scott briefly remarried a Swiss-Italian comedian.

In 1967, Scott returned to America but the music industry had moved on and she was unable to recapture her earlier levels of fame. Yet, she continued to perform and record for dedicated fans. Hazel Scott died at the age of 61 on October 2, 1981, from pancreatic cancer.

Sources

  1. Brandman, Mariana. n.d. “Biography: Hazel Scott.” Hazel Scott Biography. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/hazel-scott.
  2. Chilton, Karen. 2009. “Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. October 15, 2009. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/hazel-scotts-lifetime-of-high-notes-145939027/.
  3. Chilton, Karen. 2022. “Looking Back at the Extraordinary Life of Hazel Scott.” WRTI. February 3, 2022. https://www.wrti.org/arts-desk/2021-02-05/looking-back-at-the-extraordinary-life-of-hazel-scott.
  4. Roberts, Maddy Shaw. 2020. “Who Was Hazel Scott, the Forgotten Jazz Virtuoso Who Fought against Racial Segregation?” Classic FM. June 18, 2020. https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/piano/hazel-scott-jazz-entertainer-fought-racial-segregation/.
  5. Scutts, Joanna. 2016. “Hazel Scott: Piano Prodigy Broke Barriers for Women of Color.” Time. September 27, 2016. https://time.com/4507850/hazel-scott/.

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