It wouldn’t be shocking if you’ve never heard of Hazel Scott even if you’re a jazz fan. But, Ms Scott, was much more than a jazz star or a woman that can play a mean piano, or two!
Born Hazel Dorothy Scott in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Tobago on June 11, 1920, this jazz queen came into the world with top notch musical genes. While her father was a West African scholar from Liverpool, England, her mother was a classically trained pianist and music teacher.
Hazel’s mother moved her to New York City when she was just 4 and that was where her musical career officially kick-started.
Career and accomplishments
As a child musical prodigy, Hazel got a scholarship at 8 years to study Classical Piano at the Julliard School. Even as a teenager, she regularly performed piano and trumpets at her mom’s all-girl jazz band. By this time she had also started performing on radio programs.
Throughout her late teenage years and 20’s, Hazel was performing jazz, blues, ballads, boogie-woogie songs, classics, and Broadway in dancehalls, nightclubs, concerts, and branches of Café Society.
Hazel also portrayed herself in a number of Hollywood movies including Something to Shout About (Columbia 1943) and Rhapsody in Blue (Warner Bros 1945). Aside from Lena Horne, Hazel was one of the first Afro-Caribbean women to get major roles in Hollywood films.
She was also the first person of African descent to have her own television show which premiered in 1950. The variety show was titled “The Hazel Scott Show.”
Hazel was overall an accomplished pianist, singer, and actor and at the age of 25 was already raking in up to $75,000 a year, a notable about of money for the time.
Civil Rights Work
As an Afro-Caribbean, Hazel spoke greatly against racial segregation and was a radical civil right activist. She rejected roles in which she was to be portrayed as a singing maid. Furthermore, Hazel also preferred to wear her own clothes in movies if she felt the studio’s choices were unacceptable.
She refused to perform in segregated venues. Hazel was once escorted from the city of Austin, Texas when she noticed segregation of the patrons who attended that performance.
In 1949, Hazel filed a lawsuit against a Washington restaurant which refused to serve her and her friend because they were ‘negroes’. Her victory in that lawsuit encouraged other African Americans to challenge discrimination. The case caused a Public Accommodation Act to be enacted in 1953 in the state of Washington.
Hazel’s biggest controversy occurred after she appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on September 29, 1950. She appeared voluntarily because she was suspected of being connected with the communist party. Ms. Scott was also suspected of being involved in the Red scare.
Although she denied the initial accusation at the appearance, Hazel admitted support for a Communist Party Member Benjamin J. Davis’s run for City Council due to Davis being supported by socialists. Her variety television program, “The Hazel Scott Show” was canceled barely a week after her appearance before HUAC.
Hazel continued to perform in the United States and Europe and made appearances on other variety television shows like Cavalcade of Stars and Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town.
In the late 1950s, Hazel moved to France from America. Her aim was to avoid political fallout as she remained publicly opposed to McCarthyism and racial segregation. While in France, her career faced a decline. However, she still managed to go on tours throughout Europe from time to time.
Return to the U.S.
Ms. Scott returned to the US in 1967, after a lot of social advances had occurred including the end of racial segregation.
Hazel continued to play in night clubs and appear in daytime television after her return to the United States. Her television acting debut came in 1973 on the ABC daytime soap opera, One Life to Live.
Another major controversy in her life involved her first husband. Hazel married Baptist minister and U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr in 1945. The problem was that he was already married when they began their affair. The marriage produced a son, Adam Clayton Powell III.
She later married Swiss-born comedian Ezio Bedin on January 19, 1961.
For a woman with as many firsts and political influence as Hazel Scott had, history hasn’t done a good job in remembering, recognizing and honoring her. After her death on October 2, 1981 to cancer, the first major shout out and acknowledgment she has gotten from any present artist was from Alicia Keys at the 2019 Grammys. Hopefully, this act would catalyze the appropriate posthumous recognition Hazel Scott deserves.