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Hazel Scott, pioneering Black star, used her fame to fight Jim Crow

Hazel Scott, a pianist whose repertoire ranged from Bach to Boogie-Woogie, in 1951. (AP)

By the time Hazel Scott debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 20, she had been playing piano for 17 years. It was 1941, and the virtuosic musician had mastered both classical music and jazz. “The shining star of the evening was … Hazel Scott, who can play the piano, straight and swing; who can sing, and who can decorate any stage you like,” raved the New York Times.

Scott began the evening by playing Franz Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Two-Part Inventions” and Frédéric Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Midway through a number, almost imperceptibly her left hand would change, swinging the rhythm and shifting a classical song into a jazz number. “She gave performances that had immense gusto and wit,” the Times reviewer wrote. “It’s a good guess that the composers would not have minded.”

Scott would go on to become the first Black American (man or woman) to host her own nationally syndicated television show, “The Hazel Scott Show.” Despite the prejudices of the time — the peak of her career took place during the Jim Crow era — Scott racked up accomplishment after accomplishment in the entertainment world, fighting for equality at every step. She would perform in Hollywood, on Broadway and with symphony orchestras worldwide, earning $75,000 annually (upward of $1 million today).

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“Her accomplishments are so broad: This is a woman who studied at Juilliard at 8 years old when the entrance age was 16, who had her own radio show at 14, who was on Broadway by 18 and was a star at 19. It really is the legacy of a prodigy, of a Black female prodigy,” her biographer, Karen Chilton, told me.

In 1924, when Scott was just 4 years old, she and her mother moved from Trinidad to New York City. It was the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, fertile ground for Black musicians, writers and artists. Scott’s mother was a saxophonist and pianist herself, and the young Hazel began playing piano before she was in primary school and was performing by her adolescent years.

Scott grew up steeped in an environment of musical excellence, surrounded by her mother’s musician friends such as jazz greats Art Tatum, Lester Young and Fats Waller.

Scott quickly became a star. As a teenager, she spent her days in high school and her evenings performing at famous jazz clubs of the era, including Cafe Society, a Greenwich Village haunt that launched Billie Holiday’s career. Her early recordings broke sales records. After a successful Broadway debut, Scott set her sights on Hollywood.

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When she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1940s, she did something unthinkable for most young actresses: She turned down four roles in a row. All four required her to play a singing maid, and as a Black woman — and an educated, classically trained musician — she resented the racist overtones of such parts. She even demanded equal pay to her White counterparts.

“She was Colin Kaepernick before Colin Kaepernick,” said Dwayne Mack, a professor of history at Berea College who has written about Scott. “She took a knee by refusing to wear an apron in a movie. She said: ‘I’d rather keep my dignity and my pride and my self-awareness and my Blackness than to sell out.’ ” He added, “She understood how Blacks are depicted and portrayed: as criminals, as savages, mentally incompetent. She wanted broader roles for Black actors, more realistic roles for Black people.”

Given the lack of realistic roles available to Black women in particular, Scott ended up playing one role in Hollywood: herself. Scott would appear in five studio films, always playing an elegant stage performer and always insisting on the credit “Miss Hazel Scott as Herself.” She was so conscious of protecting her well-earned image that she often wore her own gowns and jewelry in films.

Soon, the DuMont Television Network offered Scott her own nationally syndicated television show, “The Hazel Scott Show,” which began airing in 1950. Scott appeared weekly to play piano and sing with her backing band, consisting of legendary jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Max Roach. The show was so popular that the network bumped it up to three times a week.

Scott’s rapid ascent to stardom was just as quickly curtailed by the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Both Scott and her husband, congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., were outspoken liberal activists.

Scott had successfully sued a restaurant that wouldn’t serve her because of the color of her skin. She refused to play segregated concert halls and generally settled for nothing less than equal treatment. “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” she once said. The power couple’s outspoken demands for racial justice made them both targets.

It was all too convenient for her detractors when Scott was falsely accused of having communist leanings. Seeking to defend her reputation, Scott voluntarily appeared in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Despite unrelenting questioning from the committee on baseless accusations, the 30-year-old was steadfast. “We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men,” she said, adding in a statement: “This is the day for the professional gossip, the organized rumor monger, the smear artist with the spray gun.”

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Her efforts to clear her name were futile. Appearing on the blacklist made someone guilty by default in that era, and no amount of effort to reason with the committee could prove otherwise. By the end of the year, her show would be canceled. Bookings for live performances dried up.

Scott sought refuge in Paris, a city that had gained a reputation for welcoming Black Americans in the 20th century. The resilient pianist built a second act for herself in the City of Light, performing in Europe’s nightclubs and concert halls. She was featured in the French film “Le Désordre de la Nuit,” alongside French movie star Jean Gabin.

Her apartment in the eighth arrondissement became a gathering place for Black artists, musicians and writers, expat and visitor alike. Those years in Paris have a charmed quality to them, despite the circumstances of her arrival. Her son, Adam Clayton Powell III, remembers a revolving door of celebrities coming to visit nearly every week.

The Duke Ellington band came to dinner. Billie Holiday flew in for Thanksgiving. Powell recalls Quincy Jones playing checkers with him on the floor. For vacation, they went to the beach in Cannes with Lena Horne and Count Basie.

“In those years, what appealed to her — and one of her good friends, James Baldwin — and so many others is that the French view of Black people was very different from that of the United States,” Powell told me.

“La vedette Américaine” — the American star — was one of the first phrases Powell learned in French as a child, because everyone in the neighborhood seemed to recognize Scott, perhaps from her spreads in Time or Life magazines. Powell described his mother as an outspoken and courageous woman who lived life on her own terms. “She was very committed to what she believed to be correct,” he said. Alongside Baldwin, she marched to the U.S. Embassy in 1963 in support of the March on Washington for civil rights.

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Whether because of the blacklisting or the shift in music tastes by the 1960s, Scott’s career never rebounded to its mid-century peak. These days, despite her pioneering life and enormous success in her time, she’s not a household name like her husband is. But Powell noted that video-sharing sites such as YouTube have created a renaissance for his mother’s work, and he receives emails weekly inquiring about his mother’s life and legacy.

Besides, Scott never seemed to regret the choices she made, even the ill-fated decision to appear in front of Congress. She was never one to sacrifice her self-respect for success. “I’ve been brash all my life, and it’s gotten me into a lot of trouble,” she once said. “But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.”

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