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the lost pianist: whatever happened to hazel scott?



THE YEAR WAS 1950 AND JAZZ PIANIST HAZEL SCOTT STOOD WITH HER CHIN UP and her shoulders back, in front of the House Un-Amerian Activities Committee, eager to clear her name. 

IT RAINED THAT SEPTEMBER MORNING AS SHE TOLD THE COMMITTEE'S MEMBERS, "mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem." Red Channels: A Report on Communist Influence in  Radio and Television, a publication that accused Scott and one hundred and fifty others, all cultural figures, of communist sympathies. The failure to respond to these charges would be seen as an admission of guilt. Standing with the same grace as on stage and speaking with strength and clarity and warmth, she testified: "what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security."

SHE BELIEVED SHE HAD A RESPONSIBILITY TO BE THERE AS SHE WARNED AGINST "profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation's security and peace of mind," she spoke of the artist who would turn from a "loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for American," to a "wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed." 


SHE WAS JAZZ ROYALTY - STUDDED WITH GLAMOUR AND TALENT, FROM PIANO TO JAZZ TO BROADWAY AND FILM. WHY HAS SHE BEEN LEFT THOUGH HER CONTEMPORARIES REMAIN?

BORN JUNE 11TH, 1920 IN TRINIDAD TO PARENTS, R. THOMAS SCOTT, A WEST AFRICAN SCHOLAR from England, and a classically trained pianist, Alma Long Scott, Hazel Dorothy Scott was an only child. Scott was surrounded by music her entire life, as well as her upbringing. Her mother was a music teacher to make ends meet. Scott was recognized as a child musical prodigy, as unbeknownst to the family, she was soaking in everything she heard, until the day she unleashed her talent. She awoke her grandmother with the sound of a familiar hymn on the piano, complete with perfect pitch, which made her grandmother think she was either in a dream or witnessing a miracle.

AT THREE YEARS OLD SHE PERFORMED AT CHURCHES, PARTIES, AND FAMILY GATHERINGS. In the year of 1923, her parent's marriage fell apart and Scott and her mother emigrated to New York City, at the age of four. When word spread around a child was making money in the household, a gang of white teenagers broke into the home and demanded money, when she no and flat out refused, they began to beat her, all while she refused to hand over any money.

SCOTT WOULD KEEP PERFORMING AND KEEP STUNNING AUDIENCES. SHE ENDED UP impressing one person in particular. Pocket watch in hand, the founder of the Juilliard School, Frank Damrosch, the definition of high culture. As the story goes, which had been confirmed by others and Scott's own journal, he marched down the hall as he heard someone in the audition room, improvising Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Sharp Major", with his blood boiling he went to confront the person who would attempt such a thing. Outraged, until he saw who was performing. 

SCOTT, ONLY EIGHT-YEARS-OLD AT THE TIME, COULDN'T REACH THE PIECE'S INTERVALS, so she played the sixths instead of the nines, working intuitively for the sound. In her journal, she writes: "I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age." As the audition came to an end, the director of the audition whispered: "I am in the presence of a genius." Damrosch agreed and Scott was accepted, even though the admission age of sixteen.


DURING THIS TIME, SCOTT'S MOTHER ALMA BECAME A SUCCESSFUL JAZZ MUSICIAN AND WAS friends with some of the Harlem  Renaissance's now iconic artists. This exposure was essential to Scott and her talent. Scott sat next to ragtime legend Fats Waller and piano legend Art Tatum, who told her to get into the blues. Another artist that frequented their home was Billie Holiday, who would gossip with Alma in the kitchen, she became a mentor and older sister to Scott. Scott wrote about Holiday in Ebony magazines, "wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry. She stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room." She told Scott a piece of advice that remained with Scott until her last days, "Never let them see you cry."

AT AGE THIRTEEN, STILL HARVESTING HER CRAFT, SCOTT JOINED HER MOTHER'S ALL GIRL JAZZ BAND, Alma Long Scott's American Creolians. When the gig became small her mother got her a piano spot performing at the wealthy Roseland Ballroom. During these performances, she concurred stage-fright and began to grow her audience. 


CAFE SOCIETY

BARNEY JOSEPHSON, THE FOUNDER OF THE FAMOUS CAFE SOCIETY SAID THAT IT WAS "the wrong place for the right people." This was because it wasn't segregated, unlike most of the jazz clubs throughout the city. He said, "I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front." 

OPENED IN 1938 THE CLUB QUICKLY BECAME A POPULAR SPOT FOR UP AND COMING ARTISTS AND ESTABLISHED ONES. It was here that Holiday would perform "Strange Fruit" for the first time. The opportunity came for Scott after Holiday had to cancel a show and wanted Scott to take her place. This was the start. She had complete control over this and became the club's new headliner. At only nineteen-years-old, she sat on the same bench as some of her idols. The New York Amsterdam News reported of Scott, "Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own." She became known for "swinging the classics". She would perform at the club from 1939 to 1943.

IN 1942 TIME MAGAZINES SAID ON SCOTT'S PERFORMANCE: "STRANGE NOTES AND RHYTHMS creep in, the melody is tortured with hints of boogie-woogie, until finally, happily, Hazel Scott surrenders to her worse nature and beats the keyboard into a rack of bones."

SCOTT HAD SOMETHING UNIQUE AND CLASSIC LIKE THE MUSIC SHE STUDIED. She was a brilliant, classically trained pianist, but she also had a deep, warm, and sometimes a little too comforting, a glass of dark solitude. Another component to the Scott image was the floor-length ball gowns she wore, she was beautiful and talented. She was an artist, plain and simple. Those who flocked to see her, and there were many, felt as if they were watching a sculptor sculpt or a painter paint, with the music streaming through her. Mailbags dropped in as Scott was here to stay, but would Hollywood open their doors?

HOLLYWOOD

THE YEAR WAS 1943 AND SCOTT WAS ON THE SET OF A WAR-TIME MUSICAL, "THE HEAT IS ON." Scott who refused to be cast in parts such as the maid, mammy, or other times of servants, was cast in roles as herself, her piano playing self. The scene in question, called for nine black soldiers to march down a hill, with there backs and shoulders straight, facing death in the eye. Their sweethearts would line the road, shouting their sad goodbyes, all while waving handkerchiefs. Sounds simple and sweet enough. Problem was? There outfits. The women all had on dirty aprons.

"WHAT DO YOU CARE?" asked the choreographer. "YOU'RE BEAUTIFULLY DRESSED."

SCOTT HAD IN HER CONTRACT THAT SHE WOULD WITHOUT QUESTION, HAVE THE FINAL SCRIPT AND WARDROBE APPROVAL, a good hand in dealing with the studios, this was her way of making sure she was never to look or play the fool. 

"THE NEXT THING I KNEW," said Scott in her journal, "WE WERE SCREAMING AT EACH OTHER AND THE WORK HAD STOPPED." Scott pointed out that women wouldn't dream of wearing dirty aprons while sending their men off to war. "I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.

WHEN SCOTT DIDN'T GET HER WAY, SHE WENT ON STRIKE. Three whole days. And the studio begged her to return. In studio days, time was indeed money, and the more time Scott wasn't on set, the more money it cost. Scott was fully aware of this. Eventually, the studio caved, and the once dirty apron wearing women were changed into floral dresses.


THOUGH SHE WON THIS BATTLE AND FOR THE BETTER, THE SET-MINDS OF PRODUCERS saw this as a problem that wasn't worth all the trouble, and after a small string of second-rate films and even smaller parts, Scott left the motion pictures. 

"I HEAD ANTAGONIZED THE HEAD OF COLUMBIA PICTURES," SHE SAID, "in short, committed suicide."

HOME AGAIN

SHE RETURNED TO HER ROOTS: CAFE SOCIETY. SHE PERFORMED REGULARLY AND EVEN caught the eye of a young politician. One who called her "the darling of Cafe Society." Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York's first African-American congressman, started seeing Scott, even though he was married to Isabel Washington, a nightclub singer. The two would marry eleven says after his divorce was finalized.


AROUND THIS TIME HER HOLLYWOOD CAREER WAS LONG BUT DEAD. SCOTT THEN BEGAN TO tour regularly, with reviews soaring by critics and audiences members alike, all while showcasing her unique and startling talent and fighting discrimination where ever she ventured. One example of this came in November of 1948, where it was reported that Scott flat-out refused to play an already sold-out show at the University of Texas, because of segregation within the audience. She even had an anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract. 

SCOTT AND ADAM WERE GLAMOURS, RICH, AND ATTRACTIVE. SCOTT WAS MAKING $75,000 a year, which made her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. She would soon make her return to Hollywood. But unlike the previous run with the large silver screen, she would now tackle the color barrier on the small screen in everyone's living rooms.

TELEVISION PIONEER

THE YEAR WAS 1950 AND TELEVISION WAS CLIMBING IN POPULARITY. SOME TALENTS IN the business were concerned for motion pictures while others saw the possibility to reach more folks at home, rowing with the times into a new business adventure. Scott was one of them. 



PICTURE IT. "HELLO, I'M HAZEL SCOTT." SHE SITS AT THE KEYS OF A GRAND PIANO, WEARING A WHITE GOWN, complete with a backdrop of Manhattan behind her. The Hazel Scott Show broadcasted on the DuMont Network. It was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. People were graced with this show three nights a week, as Scott performed her signature blend of classics, jazz, and boogie-woogie. It truly was a landmark moment, paving the way for women like Oprah. It was an accomplishment to Scott far more than we will ever know, not only musically but also as an activist. 

AND THEN IT WAS GONE. 

WHEN SHE STOOD PROUDLY IN FRONT OF THE HUAC, she spoke from the heart, she stood for artistic expression and freedom, she believed whole-heartedly in the embodiment of the American dream. She said, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and protect the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.” Did they listen? No. Did they believe her? No. A single week passed and her show had been canceled and gigs became harder to attain. Another star grabbed and dragged by the whiff of Communism. 

UNDERSTANDINGLY SHE WAS EXHAUSTED AND NEEDED TIME TO REGROUP AND THINK. She went to Paris for three years. She wrote in Ebony, "Paris became the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights,” It was also “a much-needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.” She would tour through Europe and in North Africa. Crowds gathered to hear Scott, but it wasn't the same, the spotlight was dimming. During this time, she and Adam would divorce and Scott would marry comedian, Ezio Bedin in January of 1961.

SHE RETURNED TO THE STATES IN 1967 AND WOULD FALL DEEPER INTO OBSCURITY. SHE PLAYED here and there in nightclubs and even appeared on the soap opera One Life to Live in 1973. But the light had been unplugged. 


IN 1981 SHE PASSED AWAY FROM CANCER, AT ONLY 61 YEARS-OLD.

FROM A THREE-YEAR-OLD GIRL WITH A PIANO AND A TALENT TO A SOMEWHAT FORGOTTEN FIRST LADY OF TELEVISION AND CLASSICAL JAZZ. HER ALBUMS ARE HARD TO FIND AND HER NAME ISN'T EVEN MENTIONED ALONG WITH THE OTHERS OF HER TIME, LIKE HOLIDAY AND ARMSTRONG AND FITZGERALD. SHE WALKED WITH THEM AND HELPED THEM, UNTIL A COUNTRY, PUSHED HER ASIDE, WHERE EVEN AS STRONG AS SCOTT WAS, SHE COULDN'T PUSH BACK.


R.