Black History Month – Hazel Scott – The Power of Jazz
Hazel Scott was an amazing woman who fought for racial equality in her life and career and never compromised her dream despite the circumstances. Hazel was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1920 and moved to Harlem in 1924 with her mother and grandmother. Hazel’s mother, Alma, was a great musician herself and a classically trained pianist. In Harlem Alma struggled to make money to support her family so she taught herself saxophone and joined Lil Hardin Armstrong’s orchestra in the 1930s. Hazel’s home growing up was a hangout for jazz musicians and she benefitted from being around people like Art Tatum, Lester Young and Fats Waller. Hazel Scott was a musical prodigy and audition for enrollment at Julliard School of Music at the age of eight and by the time she was a teen she was hosting her radio show and gigging at night.
Hazel was raised as a strong, independent black woman and fought for racial equality in every aspect of her life. Scott was one of the first black entertainers to refuse to play before segregated audiences and when her Hollywood career took off she refused to play any roles that might be perceived as demeaning to African-Americans. While filming the movie Heat’s On with Mae West, Hazel refused to wear a dirty apron as she was seeing her ‘sweetheart’ off to war as no woman would wear dirty clothes in those circumstances. Scott staged a strike for three days and the film producers caved and took the aprons out of the scene but her making that stand cost Hazel her film career. In her own words, “I’ve been brash all my life, and it’s gotten me into a lot of trouble. But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.” Scott married Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first black congressmen on the east coast, in 1945.
In 1950 Hazel Scott became the first black entertainer to host her own television show and would play piano and sing songs in the seven languages she spoke. Not long after her show began Hazel’s name appeared in the unofficial list of suspected communists called Red Channels. Because Scott was active in the Civil Rights Movement and began her career at Café Society, the first integrated club in New York City, House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her and since she had done no wrong doing she voluntarily appeared before the committee. The committee claimed to have evidence of Hazel being tied to nine communist organizations that hired her to perform even though Hazel had not even heard of any of them. At the end of this ridiculous investigation Hazel told the committee “…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.”
Though there was never anything close to actual evidence presented against her, Hazel Scott lost her show three weeks after the hearing. Her career would never reach the same levels again and Hazel spent some time in Paris before returning to America and ending her career playing small clubs around the country. One of her most notable albums is ‘Relaxed Piano Moods’ with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Hazel leaves a legacy of what it means to be a strong, caring black women in America and to stand up for what you know is right.