Hazel Scott; the rise, and tragic downfall of a phenom

Little girl
Dreaming of a baby grand piano
(Not knowing there’s a Steinway bigger, bigger)
Dreaming of a baby grand to play
That stretches paddle-tailed across the floor,
Not standing upright
Like a bad boy in the corner,
But sending music
Up the stairs and down the stairs
And out the door
To confound Hazel Scott
Who might be passing!

Langston Hughes- To Be Somebody

Hi everyone welcome to the slightly prolonged blog only run of Tales of History and Imagination. Apologies to the podcast followers – COVID-19 threw my productivity into a tailspin for a little while. I am approximately three weeks behind schedule – hence four more short blog episodes. I got feedback from one friend I should not try to make them too happy or upbeat – apparently my horrible history topics are preferred – but I hope you all understand I’m not writing a jot on plagues or any other kind of pandemic for a little while. I don’t see being topical about something which is giving many others (myself included) much anxiety as in any way beneficial right now. I got a message on the Facebook page a month ago asking if I had anything planned for Womens’ History Month this year (I hadn’t) and if so who was I thinking of writing about. Today seems as good a day as any to right my wrong by not dropping any Womens’ History Month material this year and talk about the incredible Hazel Scott.

Born June 11 1920 in Port of Spain, Trinidad; it is safe to say Hazel Scott showed prodigious talent from a very young age. There is a story that one sunny Trinidadian day then 3 year old Hazel’s grandmother was looking after her while her mother took a break. Putting the child to bed she sang Hazel a hymn, then feeling tired herself took a catnap of the couch. She was awoken minutes later by Hazel, seated at her mother’s piano, vamping through an arrangement of the hymn. The child had never, that anyone was aware of, sat at the piano before – had never taken a single lesson – but had hour upon hour watched her mother giving piano lessons to children in the neighborhood. She had acquired the ability to play a musical instrument in much the same way children acquire languages – through observation. It has to be said however, even at this young age Hazel could play with remarkable feel and dexterity. By the age of four Hazel’s mother relocated to New York with her child phenom.

Another tale often told in relation to a young Hazel Scott is how she was ‘discovered’. The tale goes that one day at New York’s famous Julliard School of music the school’s founder, the conductor Frank Damrosch, was shocked out of his chair by an awful rendition of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# min. Enraged, Damrosch slammed his office door and stormed over to the rehearsal room, ready to give the errant student a piece of his mind. On his way to the room he surmised the problem was those wide interval stretches you need to play Rachmaninov. Where an octave was required someone was playing a sixth – a few keys shy. When he got to the room he found eight year old Hazel, tinkling the ivories. On having a talk with the child it soon become apparent to Damrosch the only thing stopping this child from nailing the difficult piece was she needed to grow those hands a little.. to stretch a few more keys. Before long she would be attending the famed music school, learning all she could from Frank.

Frank Damrosch, founder of the Julliard School of Music.

As a young adult Hazel Scott would go from strength to strength. At 19 she was rocking out at Greenwich Village’s Café Society – an integrated bar (where both black and white patrons were welcomed) whose patrons included poets, movie stars, politicians – anybody who was somebody. She had an act that became known as ‘Swinging the Classics’ which would work as follows – Hazel would take a classical piece, playing it completely straight – then she would start to add a little swing to the beat, and a healthy dose of jazz improvisation. Her performances were dizzying in their virtuosity, and completely unique for their time. She was soon on the bill with a number of major artists of her era and a regular at Café Society. Fast becoming an A lister herself, she rubbed shoulders with all the A Listers. She met and fell in love with Adam Clayton Powell Jr, the first African American congressman in America’s North East. The two would marry in 1945.

Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell jr.

At this point in her life Hazel was doing very well indeed – pulling in around $75,000 a year – around a million in current dollars. By the early 1940s she had begun to appear in the movies. Like Lena Horne, she refused to ever portray a negative stereotype of the like Hattie McDaniel would make a career at. No maids, no stock minstrel characters, no savages. More often than not she would play herself – which she did in several films, first for MGM, then Colombia, then Warner Brothers. She was active in the Civil Rights movement – Besides becoming an agent of change in Hollywood (in her refusals to be presented as a negative stereotype she paved the way for other black actors to do the same), she refused to play segregated venues. At one stage she caused an uproar in Austin Texas, when she found a venue she was booked for had blacks only and white only zones. The situation became violent when she refused to perform, and the Texas Rangers had to escort her out for her safety. Hazel Scott later told Time magazine “Why would anyone come here to hear me, a Negro… and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” In 1949 she would file a lawsuit against a diner in Pasco, Washington who refused to serve her on account of her skin colour. Her lawsuit would serve as a precedent for later lawsuits in Washington state barring establishments from refusing service to African Americans.

In July 1950 – to some this was Hazel Scott’s crowning achievement – she became the first African American to have her own television show, The Hazel Scott show. A 15 minute, live to air piece for the Dumont Network – Scott would showcase her talents on the piano. It was very popular, but would only run for three months. We have the House Un-American Activities Committee to thank for that – and for the unravelling of Hazel Scott’s remarkable life and career.

Senator Joseph McCarthy.

To sum up the HUAC in a few paragraphs, particularly to the uninitiated, does seem a big task – suffice to say much of the world had been in a state of massive disruption in the decades prior. If we are to draw a line in the sand at the Great Depression and point to how President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the New Deal – a veritable ‘alphabet soup’ of legislation aimed at looking after the welfare of Americans; stimulating growth via massive infrastructure schemes, a safety net for all who needed it, a program of taxation which made the wealthy pay their fair share and Government ownership of certain essential industries – you get a sense the USA was going through a massive change in the way they did things. With FDR came a change in mindset, as often there is at important historical junctures. Much of the USA became a little more utilitarian – concerned in the greater good and happiness of all. The New Deal would remain the strategic blueprint for America through Democrat and Republican presidents alike right up till the Neoliberals scrapped it in the 1970s. The other important juncture was World War Two.

Geopolitically, the war placed the USA and USSR at the top of the pile, and into a dangerous rivalry with one another. On a personal level, a postwar USA was booming – leading to increased urbanization, among other changes – but one change which those who had fought overseas and those who had sacrificed at home during this long, hard era – were no longer willing to put up with the inequalities and discriminations of the older ways. This time saw a huge rise in unionism, in the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBTQI+ rights, a rise in counter culture movements like the Hells Angels. The rise of youth oriented culture like rock and roll. As much as the HUAC, McCarthyism – named after the Democratic Senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy – may have had some genuine concerns over communist infiltrators now the postwar landscape had made the two blocs bitter rivals – their witch hunts were as much a knee jerk reaction to a rising call for a better standard of life for all Americans. Look, this is reductive, but I did say I’d cover it in two paragraphs.

Back to Hazel Scott. In July 1950, just as her Television career was starting off, Hazel was named on a list of possible subversives. A decade earlier she had played at a charity fundraiser at Café Society for a local member of the Communist Party, who had run for a seat on the New York Council. The chances of her getting called up before the HUAC were slim, but Hazel was never one to back down from oppressors and demanded to speak with the committee. As Americans they had freedom to believe what they wished, and freedom of association. That she was not a communist, and barely knew the candidate is neither here nor there, she was horrified at the gall of these conservative, populist snolligosters daring to ruin the lives of so many Americans, and drag the USA back into a regressive, discriminatory age. She would stand up to them, because somebody had to.

Sadly this tale does not have a happy ending. Not all tales do. Hazel Scott destroyed her career by appearing before the HUAC. The TV show was cancelled. Her movie roles dried up, the concert venues got smaller and smaller. Her marriage to Powell broke up. For a while she moved to Paris. She would continue to make a living out of her talents, but in no way at the level she used to. She would suffer depression and attempt to commit suicide twice. She would eventually die of pancreatic cancer in October 1981.

If I had chosen to do a piece on Women’s History Month, Hazel Scott would have been my choice. She had a preternatural talent which brought joy to millions. She used her platform to help make significant change in the lives of others. She was a role model for many young African American kids wishing to be entertainers. The story of her downfall is a travesty, an unsightly blot on the American landscape often overlooked for bigger, more shocking cases. For such a shining light she has become ephemeral in the passage of time, and that too is wrong. Take a second to honour Ms Scott in the video, borrowed from YouTube below.


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