We often think that the famous people we’ve heard of were the best at what they did. But there are many people in many fields who did extraordinary things and didn’t wholly get the recognition they deserved. Like Hazel Scott.
Hazel was born in Trinidad and moved to New York when she was 4 years old. She showed signs of being a musical prodigy and she got a scholarship to study classical piano at the prestigious Julliard School when she was 8. In 1933, at the age of 13, she formed her own All-Girl’s Jazz Band and played both piano and trumpet and also sang. By the age of 16, she was performing on the radio and beginning to play piano in various nightclubs.
The word got around and people flocked to see this talented young woman who could play so many different styles of both jazz and classical music. And combine them, often doing something called “swinging the classics.” By 1943, she had performed at Carnegie Hall and been featured in three movies. She was a rising star in both the music world and the film industry. By 1950, she became the first African American woman to host her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show.
To be successful, many people had to give up their moral values and do whatever the people hiring them demanded. But Hazel was very clear about her dignity as a black woman. She would not accept any film roles that depicted her as a maid or a nanny and decided her own wardrobe in the films. If the director insisted she wear something that she felt was demeaning, she simply quit the picture.
Likewise, she refused to perform in clubs where blacks and whites were segregated, saying “Why would anyone want to come to hear me, but refuse to sit next to someone like me?” She fought on many levels for racial justice, suing a restaurant in Washington State that refused her service.
While offering an inspiring model of a talented artist dedicated to justice, she also suffered in her career. In the early 1950’s, Senator Joe McCarthy conducted a government-approved campaign to expose anyone connected to the Communist Party or communist ideas and blacklist them, preventing them from being hired for a job in their field. When accused, she testified before the congressional committee affirming that she had never been a member of the Communist Party, but criticizing the committee for their irresponsible actions in throwing “the mud of slander and the filth of scandal” onto decent American citizens. She stood up and spoke truth to power.
And one week later, her TV show was cancelled and her career cut short, never to recover. The young woman who was once as well-known as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald fell out of the public spotlight. Still to this day, she is often left out of books about jazz history.
And so we tell her story here—Hazel Scott as a sterling example of an extraordinary talent who used her time in the spotlight to uplift us with her art, challenge us to examine injustice and inspire us with her commitment to a better world.
LISTENING SUGGESTION: One of her most remarkable performances was featured in a movie titled “The Heat’s On” in which she plays two pianos at once. Enjoy and be amazed!
And if you want to know more, here is a 20-minute mini-documentary about her life: