Hazel Scott

Each day that I have lived, thus far, has taught me something. The sharing of pleasure; the loneliness of pain; the long hours of waiting, for evidence of love; the brief, bitter, horror of hate; the sad, misguided, misplaced trust; the fact of my own fallibility, my own unworthiness. The greatness that has been momentarily been mine! The exalted seconds of genius, the immeasurable depths of apathy. In each day of my life, there has been something of one of these. Whether or not I shall be able to convey, in an interesting manner, certain parts of the kaleidoscopic life that I have lived, I truly do not know. All that I can do is attempt it.

– Hazel Scott [1]

Hazel Scott was a woman after my own heart. Seamlessly transitioning between virtuosic classical music and the swingin’-est jazz licks — between incredibly hot stride piano and gorgeous ballads and all with a beautifully genuine, playful, confident, and passionate spirit. Her playing and singing reach right into my heart and give it a squeeze, and then kick me square in the rear end saying “now, get to the practice room, LG!” Someone once called her the “most incandescent personality” and from listening to her recordings and watching footage of her performances, I have to agree. Beyond her incredible playing, Hazel Scott was a civil rights activist, breaking down barriers in both the recording and film industries.

Karen Chilton wrote a wonderful piece on Hazel Scott for the Smithsonian Magazine (see link below) and also a book which I’m excited to read (cited below). Many thanks to Chilton for unearthing Hazel Scott’s legacy and sharing it with the world. Scott’s life was so, as she said “kaleidoscopic,” I found it difficult to write a short piece about her, so I chose a succession of highlights which I’ve listed below in “semi-prose” form. Please pardon the clipped nature of the writing — and please do enjoy the listening, as you’re in for a treat. Here is a playlist of her music in case you’d like to listen as you read on.

Born in Trinidad in 1920, Hazel Scott was a child prodigy, beginning to pick up piano from the age of 3. The family relocated to Harlem when Scott was 4 years of age. Incidentally, her mother was a pianist who joined the Lil Hardin Armstrong Orchestra in the early 30s. Scott auditioned at Julliard at age 8 and was admitted to study privately there due to her genius, even though minimum age was 16. She performed after Count Basie at Roseland Ballroom when she was still in high school. [2]

She had her debut at Carnegie Hall in 1940. According to Les Ledbetter, New York Times, “she began by playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in a conventional style. Then, to the relief of her fans, she switched the tempo to her own modern-jazz interpretation. ‘It was witty, daring, modern, but never irreverent,’ wrote a critic reviewing the performance. ‘Liszt would have been delighted.’” [3] This clip from the 1943 film, “The Heat’s On,” is a fine example of Scott’s incredible talent — and on two pianos:

Scott was also an outspoken advocate for civil rights in her professional work. It was written in her contract that she would not play for segregated audiences. If she arrived at a venue and found it was segregated, she would walk out. In fact, she was shamefully escorted by Texas Rangers out of Austin, TX after one such walk-out. She’s quoted as saying “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” [4]

She also refused to play demeaning roles in a film — in fact, she would only play herself and held control of what she played and what she wore. Hollywood wanted her so badly, they agreed to her conditions. She went on strike after being “angered by the costumes the black actresses were given to wear. She complained that ‘no woman would see her sweetheart off to war wearing a dirty apron.’” Unfortunately, that incident caused an early end to her film career after the executives learned how much money her strike cost the company. [2]

In 1950, she was the first black performer to host her own nationally syndicated television show. Soon after that, according to Chilton, “her name would appear in “Red Channels” the unofficial list of suspected communists… Since she was neither a member of the communist party or a communist sympathizer, she requested to appear voluntarily before the committee…Her cogent testimony challenged the committee members, providing solid evidence contrary to their accusations.” Even in the face of relentless questioning, Scott was collected and articulate and she closed with a statement that rings true even today:

…may I end with one request—and that is 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.

Regardless of her testimony, she was blacklisted and her show was canceled.

She moved to Paris for twelve years after this and when she came back to the states in the 60s she was never able to restart her career. “It was like she came back to a whole new world,” Chilton said. “Everybody expected her to get back in the action (of the civil rights movement), but she was older, mellowed a bit, wanted to get her career going again, but it never happened.” [2] She died of cancer at the age of 61 in 1981. [3]

Several years before her death, when asked what was most important in her life, she answered, “The important part? When I have been able to transmit that which I have been singularly gifted with … to move an audience to their feet.” [1] To me, that says it all. Thank you, Hazel Scott, for everything.

(Re)sources

[1] Karen Chilton. Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

[2] Karen Chilton. “Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes.” Smithsonian.com. October 15, 2009. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/hazel-scotts-lifetime-of-high-notes-145939027/#IhCLSphHtZzxRQtk.99).

[3] Les Ledbetter. “Hazel Scott, 61, Jazz Pianist, Acted in Films, On Broadway.” The New York Times. (October 3, 1981. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/10/03/obituaries/hazel-scott-61-jazz-pianist-acted-in-films-on-broadway.html).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Hazel Scott,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hazel_Scott&oldid=875752361 (accessed January 18, 2019).

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