Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes

She began her career as a musical prodigy and ended up breaking down racial barriers in the recording and film industries

Hazel Scott captivated audiences with her renditions of classical masterpieces by Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff. (Associated Press)

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As Hazel settled into domestic life in upstate New York, her career took a backseat to being a political wife and mother of their only son, Adam Clayton Powell III. She gave up nightclubs at Powell’s request and while he was away in Washington, she performed concert dates across the country.

In the summer of 1950, Hazel was offered an unprecedented opportunity by one of the early pioneers of commercial television, the DuMont network—she would become the first black performer to host her own nationally syndicated television show. As the solo star of the show, Hazel performed piano and vocals, often singing tunes in one of the seven languages she spoke. A review in Variety stated, “Hazel Scott has a neat little show in this modest package. Most engaging element in the air is the Scott personality, which is dignified, yet relaxed and versatile.”

But before she could fully enjoy her groundbreaking achievement, her name would appear in Red Channels, the unofficial list of suspected communists. Hazel’s association with Café Society (which was a suspected communist hangout) along with her civil rights efforts made her the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Since she was neither a member of the Communist Party or a communist sympathizer, she requested to appear voluntarily before the committee despite her husband’s admonitions against it.

“It has never been my practice to choose the popular course,” she said. “When others lie as naturally as they breathe, I become frustrated and angry.” Her cogent testimony challenged the committee members, providing solid evidence contrary to their accusations. They had a list of nine organizations, all with communist ties, for whom she had performed. She only recognized one of the nine, the others she had never heard of. Yet, she explained that as an artist she was booked only to perform and rarely knew the political affiliations of the organizers who hired her. After hours of fierce questioning, she stated:

“…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.”

The entertainment community applauded her fortitude, but the government’s suspicions were enough to cause irreparable damage to her career. Weeks after the hearing, The Hazel Scott Show was canceled, and concert bookings became few and far between.

Around this same time, her marriage to Powell was crumbling under the weight of career demands, too much time apart, competitive jealousy and infidelity. After eleven years of marriage, the couple decided to part ways. Hazel sought refuge overseas. With her young son in tow, she joined the burgeoning black expatriate community in Paris.

Her apartment on the Right Bank became a regular hangout for other American entertainers living in Paris. James Baldwin, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach were regular guests, along with musicians from the Ellington and Basie bands. Hazel’s music softened during the Paris years; she played more serene tunes with less and less of her old boogie-woogie style. On a brief visit to the States in 1955, she recorded Relaxed Piano Moods with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach on the Debut label, an album now considered by jazz critics and aficionados as one of the most important jazz recordings of the twentieth century. Most recently, it was inducted into National Public Radio’s Basic Jazz Record Library.

After a decade of living abroad, she would return to an American music scene that no longer valued what she had to offer. Replaced by rhythm & blues, the Motown sound and the British bands, jazz was no longer popular music, and Hazel Scott was no longer a bankable talent. Once the “darling of Café Society,” Hazel continued to perform, playing small clubs to a devoted fan base, perfecting her style and constantly exploring new ways of expressing herself musically. In October of 1981, she passed away from pancreatic cancer. Though she may not be as widely recognized as many of her contemporaries, her legacy as one of the pioneering women in entertainment endures.

Karen Chilton is the author of Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC.


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