She was called “the Darling of Café Society” back in 1938 when New York City was alive with the sounds of Swing. A girl genius, Hazel Scott wowed audiences with her wildly original renditions of classical masterpieces by Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff which she swung into jazz riffs effortlessly. A sexy siren sitting bare-shouldered at the piano, she drew the kind of crowd that Café Society would become known for—an integrated clientele of artists and activists, poets, writers, tourists and celebrities.
Born Hazel Dorothy Scott in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad (June 11, 1920) and raised in Harlem, her musical talent was cultivated by her musician mother, Alma Long Scott as well as several jazz luminaries of the period (who happened to be close family friends)--Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Lester Young.
Career success was swift for the young pianist—she auditioned and received admission to the prestigious Juilliard School when she was only eight years old (half the standard entry age), hosted her own radio show on WOR, and shared the bill at Roseland Ballroom with the Count Basie Orchestra by age 15. Following a standout performance in the musical revue SING OUT THE NEWS on Broadway, it was the opening of New York's first integrated nightclub, Café Society, that would make Hazel Scott a star.
Securing only first-class bookings at Carnegie Hall, the Ritz Carlton in Boston, the Paramount and the Roxy in New York, Hazel Scott became one of the most sought-after talents of her day. Her album, Swinging the Classics on the Decca label was a hit among the troops overseas, and achieved record-breaking sales in the States. Adding to her popularity was her 1945 marriage to Harlem's crusading congressman and pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. They would become one of the most high-profile American couples, trotting the globe with their young son, Adam Powell III in tow.
In a career spanning over four decades, Hazel Scott gained international renown becoming one of the highest paid performers of her era. She appeared in numerous big budget Hollywood films with MGM and Columbia studios including RHAPSODY IN BLUE, BROADWAY RHYTHM, I DOOD IT, and SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT. In each film appearance, she had contractual control over her image, insisting on wearing her own gowns and jewels, and refusing to play any subservient roles. Her film credits would read: "Hazel Scott as Herself."
A trailblazer, Hazel Scott was the first African-American entertainer to host her own television show--a show that was without variety acts or comedy, where her musical prowess was its sole attraction. The Hazel Scott Show aired on the DuMont network in July of 1950. Though it was a tremendous breakthrough in American television history, unfortunately, it would be short-lived. Her outspoken advocacy of civil rights and refusal to play before segregated audiences made her the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the McCarthy Era, eventually forcing Scott to join the black expatriate community in Paris where she would live throughout the 1950s and early 60s.
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures - Photo still from "I DOOD IT"
After years of living abroad, Scott would return to the States and a music world that no longer valued what she had to offer. The music industry had changed; musical tastes had shifted with the times. In the midst of the civil rights movement, jazz had taken a backseat to the urgent sounds of protest music, rhythm & blues, rock & roll.
Still, she longed for another jazz room that she could call her own. She found it at Kippy’s where she played sentimental favorites to an appreciative crowd, reliving a bit of her past.
She called it a 'dream gig' but, sadly, it would not last. Soon after her regular engagements began, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The disease moved quickly, and on October 2, 1981, Hazel Scott passed away.
Once, one of the biggest names in the business and one of its most captivating artists, Hazel Scott's legacy is now experiencing newfound recognition and appreciation.
HAZEL SCOTT: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC
(University of Michigan Press)
by Karen Chilton