This past week would have been Hazel Scott’s 90th birthday. She’s probably not as well known today as she was in her lifetime, which is a shame, because Hazel Scott was not only a brilliant and audacious pianist but a woman who spent most of her life bucking the system.
A child prodigy, she was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, June 11th, 1920, the only child of R. Thomas Scott, a West African scholar from England and Alma Long Scott, a classically-trained pianist and music teacher. Hazel began playing piano at the age of two. In 1924 her parents divorced, and she and her mother moved to the States, settling in Harlem, where her musical guidance continued with support from local jazz greats like Art Tatum, Lester Young and Fats Waller. Two years later Scott made her formal American performing debut at New York’s Town Hall. In 1929 Scott received several scholarships to Julliard School of Music, but still being too young to attend, the school’s director, Walter Damrosch, offered to teach her privately. At sixteen Hazel Scott had her own radio show on WOR, the Mutual Broadcasting System, and at night she’d perform at the Roseland Dance Hall with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra. She was dubbed the “Darling of Café Society.”
In the late 1930’s, she appeared on Broadway in the musical Singing Out the News, followed by Priorities of 1942. In 1943 Hollywood came knocking, and she appeared in the several films over the next few years including Something to Shout About, Tropicana, The Heat’s On, Broadway Rhythm and Rhapsody in Blue.
With the advent of television she became the first African American woman to have her own TV show. The Hazel Scott Show debuted on the DuMont Television Network in 1950. But Scott’s interests, especially her relentless campaign for civil rights, women's rights, and the rights of artists made her an easy target for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarthy Era. Her television show was canceled after just a few months on the air, due to accusations of her being a communist sympathizer.
There is an excellent biography, published in 2008, by Karen Chilton -- Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC. It tells the story of how by the age of twenty-five Hazel Scott was an international star, but before reaching her mid thirties, she considered herself a failure, twice attempting suicide. The book also goes into detail about her conflicts with HUAC and Hollywood and her failed marriage to the controversial Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Subsequent to being blacklisted and divorced after eleven years of marriage, Scott left the States. Along with her son, she joined the burgeoning black expatriate community settling in Paris. She wouldn’t return to America until 1967. Her apartment on the Right Bank would become a popular hangout for other Americans including the likes of James Baldwin, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach.
But most significantly, Hazel Scott was an incredible, world class musician. One of her greatest abilities -- she was brilliantly adept at combining jazz improvisations into classical pieces. Few could come close to her imaginative re-interpretations of pieces by Bach or Chopin or Rachmaninoff. Scott’s recording career lasted some four decades, releasing albums on several labels including Decca, Signature, Tioch, and Columbia. She hit her stride in January 1955 when she went into the Debut recording studios with a rhythm section consisting of two of jazz’s greatest icons -- Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach, drums. In Relaxed Piano Moods, Scott handles her own compositions and standards, especially J.J. Johnson’s ballad “Lament,” with such incredible depth and confidence, her perfectly gem-like touch swings with incredible sophistication and guile; it is a 20th century masterwork of jazz.
Hazel Scott continued to perform until her death, passing away from pancreatic cancer on October 2, 1981 at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.