Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott (1920 – 1981) was a Trinidadian-born jazz and classical pianist, singer, and actor. She was a critically acclaimed performing artist and an outspoken critic of racial discrimination and segregation. She used her influence to improve the representation of Black Americans in film.

Born in Port of Spain, Scott moved to New York City with her mother at the age of four. Scott was a child musical prodigy, receiving scholarships to study at the Juilliard School when she was eight. In her teens, she performed in a jazz band. She also performed on the radio.

Scott was renowned as a virtuosic jazz pianist, in addition to her successes in dramatic acting and classical music. She also used her status as one of the best-known African-American entertainers of her generation to shine a spotlight on issues of racial injustice and civil rights. Scott recorded as the leader of various groups for Decca, Columbia, and Signature, among them a trio that consisted of Bill English and the double bass player Martin Rivera, and another trio with Charles Mingus on bass and Rudie Nichols on drums. Her 1955 album ‘Relaxed Piano Moods’ on the Debut Record label, with Mingus and Max Roach, is regarded as her best work. Her unique swinging style and fusion of jazz and classical influences kept her in demand for performances through the very end of her life.

She was prominent as a jazz singer throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1950, she became the first black American to host her own TV show, ‘The Hazel Scott Show.’ Her career in America faltered after she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950 during the McCarthy era. Scott subsequently moved to Paris in 1957 and began performing in Europe, not returning to the United States until 1967.

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on June 11, 1920, Hazel Dorothy Scott was the only child of R. Thomas Scott, a West African scholar from Liverpool, England, and Alma Long Scott, a classically trained pianist, and music teacher. In 1924, the family moved to the United States and settled in Harlem. By that time, Scott could play anything she heard on the piano. With her mother’s guidance and training, she mastered advanced piano techniques and was labeled a child prodigy. A few years later, when Scott was eight years old, Professor Paul Wagner of the Juilliard School of Music accepted her as his own student. In 1933, her mother organized her own ‘Alma Long Scott’s All-Girl Jazz Band,’ where Scott played the piano and trumpet.

By the age of 16, Hazel Scott regularly performed for radio programs for the Mutual Broadcasting System, gaining a reputation as the ‘hot classicist.’ In the mid-1930s, she also performed at the Roseland Dance Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra. Her early musical theatre appearances in New York included the ‘Cotton Club Revue of 1938,’ ‘Sing Out the News,’ and ‘The Priorities of 1942.’

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Scott performed jazz, blues, ballads, Broadway and boogie-woogie songs, and classical music in various nightclubs. Thanks to the vision of Barney Josephson, the owner of Café Society, to establish a venue where artists of all races and ethnicities could perform, from 1939 to 1943, she was a leading attraction at both the downtown and uptown branches. Her performances created national prestige for the practice of ‘swinging the classics.’ By 1945, Scott was earning $75,000 a year.

In addition to Lena Horne, Scott was one of the first Afro-Caribbean women to garner respectable roles in major Hollywood pictures. She performed as herself in several features, notably ‘I Dood It’ (MGM, 1943), ‘Broadway Rhythm’ (MGM, 1944) with Lena Horne, in the otherwise all-white cast of ‘The Heat’s On’ (Columbia, 1943), ‘Something to Shout About’ (Columbia, 1943), and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (Warner Bros, 1945). In the 1940s, in addition to her film appearances, she was featured in Café Society’s ‘From Bach to Boogie-Woogie’ concerts in 1941 and 1943 at Carnegie Hall.

Scott had long been committed to civil rights, particularly in Hollywood. She refused to take roles in Hollywood that cast her as a ‘singing maid.’ When she began performing in Hollywood films, she insisted on having final cut privileges when it came to her appearance. In addition, she required control over her own wardrobe so that she could wear her own clothing if she felt that the studio’s choices were unacceptable. Her final break with Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn involved ‘a costume which she felt stereotyped blacks.’ Scott also refused to perform in segregated venues when she was on tour. She was once escorted from the city of Austin, Texas by Texas Rangers because she refused to perform when she discovered that black and white patrons were seated in separate areas. ‘Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro,’ she told ‘Time Magazine,’ ‘and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?’

In 1949, Scott brought a suit against the owners of a Pasco, Washington restaurant when a waitress refused to serve Scott and her traveling companion, Mrs. Eunice Wolfe, because ‘they were Negroes.’ Scott’s victory helped African Americans challenge racial discrimination in Spokane, as well as inspiring civil rights organizations ‘to pressure the Washington state legislature to enact the Public Accommodations Act’ in 1953.

With the advent of the Red Scare in the television industry, Scott’s name appeared in ‘Red Channels: A Report on Communist Influence in Radio and Television’ in June 1950. In an effort to clear her name, Scott voluntarily appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee on September 22, 1950, and insisted on reading a prepared statement. (HUAC). She denied that she was ‘ever knowingly connected with the Communist Party or any of its front organizations.’ However, she stated that she had supported Communist Party member Benjamin J. Davis’s run for City Council, arguing that Davis was supported by socialists, a group that ‘has hated Communists longer and more fiercely than any other.’ She also expressed her frustrations with the mass amount of false accusations of entertainers and offered the suggestion to utilize ‘democratic methods to immediately eliminate a good many irresponsible charges.’ Scott concluded her statement to the HUAC with a request that entertainers are not ‘covered with the mud of slander and the filth of scandal’ when proving their loyalty to the United States.

Her television variety program, ‘The Hazel Scott Show,’ was cancelled a week after Scott appeared before HUAC, on September 29, 1950. Scott suffered a nervous breakdown in 1951. On returning to full health, she played with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Scott continued to perform in the United States and Europe, even getting sporadic bookings on television variety shows like ‘Cavalcade of Stars’ and guest starring in an episode of the ‘Wonderful Town’ musical series on CBS. Scott’s short-lived television show ‘provided a glimmer of hope for African American viewers’ during a time of continued racial bias in the broadcasting industry and economic hardships for jazz musicians in general. Scott remained publicly opposed to McCarthyism and racial segregation throughout her career.

To evade political fallout in the United States, Scott moved to Paris in 1957. She appeared in the French film ‘Le désordre et la nuit’ (1958). In 1963, she marched with a number of other African-American expatriates, including James Baldwin, to the U.S. Embassy in Paris to demonstrate support of the upcoming March on Washington. She did not return to the U.S. until 1967. By this time the Civil Rights Movement had led to federal legislation ending racial segregation and enforcing the protection of voting rights of all citizens in addition to other social advances.

Scott continued to play occasionally in nightclubs, while also appearing in daytime television until the year of her death. She made her television acting debut in 1973, on the ABC daytime soap opera ‘One Life to Live,’ performing a wedding song at the nuptials of her ‘onscreen cousin’ Carla Gray Hall, portrayed by Ellen Holly.

In 1945, Scott married Baptist minister and U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. They had one child, Adam Clayton Powell III, but divorced in 1960 after a separation. Their relationship provoked controversy, as Powell was married when their affair began. At the end of 1960 the two divorced and Powell married his secretary. On January 19, 1961, she married Ezio Bedin, a Swiss-Italian comedian who was fifteen years her junior; they divorced a few years later, before her return to the U.S. Hazel Scott was also a member of the Baha’i Faith.

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