“I’ve always known I was gifted, which is not the easiest thing in the world for the person to know, because you are not responsible for your gift, only for what you do with it.”- Hazel Scott
Hearing Hazel Scott evokes clinking cocktail glasses in a dimly lit smoke-filled room with meticulously coiffed women and sophisticated men. Like diverging from a well-known road, Scott’s sound is lush and intoxicating, making additional instruments unnecessary. At times she wills the piano to sound as enchanting as a harp in one instance and then bangs out the bottom bass of boogie-woogie at another. Her hands fly up and down the keyboard, each finger exacting in its notes, the result of a beautiful collision of resonation, a converging of Chopin, Rachmaninov, Gershwin, and master pianist Art “The Boss” Tatum. She detours you, channeling melodies of her own interpretation, yet somehow the amalgamation forms seamlessly, making one recall how unpredictably beautiful a detour can actually be. That is the excitement of Scott. Traditional routes are not taken and even though the journey is uncertain, in Scott’s capable hands, the unexpected is entirely welcome.
She was playing the piano by the age of 2 and by age 8, she was enrolled in Julliard, (where the admission age was officially 16). At 15, she performed with Count Basie and toured with her mother’s all-female orchestra. In 1950, she became the first black woman to host her own television show. She played Carnegie Hall, was an outspoken civil rights advocate, had a 15-year high profile marriage with the first black New York City councilman and prominent boisterous civil rights activist Adam Clayton Powell and her hands were insured by Lloyds of London. Her fans included icons the likes of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole, to name a few, yet when In 2019 Alicia Keys hosted the Grammys, and performed on two pianos simultaneously, when she acknowledged Hazel Scott, the crowd barely reacted.
The better part of Trinidadian-born piano prodigy Hazel Scott’s career spanned the Swing Era that took place from the 1930s through the mid-40s (Swing is a derivative of jazz,). She moved from Port of Spain to Harlem New York at the age of 4. Her expertise was her jazz-inspired syncopated runs and glissandos that breathed contemporary life into classical music along with her husky vocals (her breathy version of Qu’on Est Bien will make you look up its translation).
To say that Scott took the jazz world by storm would be somewhat incorrect. During the Depression, Scott’s mother, also a classically-trained pianist, learned how to play the saxophone as a means of survival. In successfully becoming part of the jazz scene, she attracted top icons the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fats Waller to her Harlem apartment where jam sessions were regular occurrences. Naturally, Scott also became an active participant. In addition to her Julliard training, she was mentored by the top musicians of the day, conveniently, in her own home. Her most significant break came when Holiday, who knew Scott from the time she was a teenager, purposefully ended a gig three weeks early at Cafe Society, suggesting the house manager occupy her absence with Scott. Scott’s performances were so dynamic she garnered the name “The Darling of Cafe Society.” Cafe Society, which opened in 1938, was the first integrated night club in New York that hosted guests like Langston Hughes, Nelson Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Orson Welles. It was also where Billie Holiday first performed the haunting, “Strange Fruit.”
Scott, one of the highest-paid musicians of her time, had it written into her performance contract that her audiences were to be integrated, canceling or either not performing (at one point minutes before curtain) should the management ignore the agreed commitment. Martin Luther King witnessed his first non-segregated performance attending Scott’s show.
With her poise, beauty and curvaceous physique, Hollywood came calling. Scott had it written in her Columbia Pictures contract that the only character she would reflect would be herself. She refused traditional subservient roles, and also demanded full control of her wardrobe. The story of Columbia Pictures mogul, Harry “The Horror” Cohn blacklisting Scott from Hollywood after she walked off of a production for three days due to the costuming of black actresses is true. However, what is not as readily known is that the infamous Cohn and Scott were initially friendly with one another. When being interviewed on NPR in 1980, Scott claims to have had conversations on a regular basis with Cohn, “I would speak my mind,” Scott is quoted as stating, informing the mogul of cultural-historical accuracy, to which he would admonish his staff for their ignorance.
In 1950 Scott voluntarily testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, after being named as a Communist, where she used the platform to express her disdain for the trials. When Scott was a child, a gang of young white men broke into her home while she was alone, demanding money. She was beaten black and blue, without surrendering. It was with that same fortitude and unwavering courage, fully aware of the penalties, that she faced HUAC. (Learn more about HUAC here and its ties to the current administration.)
“Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem. What happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security-profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” – Hazel Scott
As a result of being named a communist, her television show was canceled. Scott embarked on a successful career in Europe, where she became friends with icons Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, remaining there for almost 20 years, before returning to the United States.
Scott, aware of her precise influence, remained an unapologetic pillar of defiance in the face of oppression, comfortable in defining the “uncomfortable” dictation of her life’s narrative, and we are the recipients of her virtuosity and fortitude.
With each passing generation, memories become relics, consistently gathering the dust of time, and until their cloaked brilliance is revealed, we are not fully aware of their existence, and that is more than likely why you may not know Hazel Scott, but, thanks to conscious keepers of the flame – like Alicia Keys – now you do.
Constance Cherise is a classic film aficionado. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Review her portfolio here.