Lloyd’s of London insured her hands for a million dollars.
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But her art and her stardom were uninsurable. In 1950, after Scott was blacklisted, she lost every support system a musician depends on: bookings, advertisers, radio spots, managers. She eventually disappeared from history.
That’s changing now, as Alicia Keys, ballet dancers, filmmakers and other performers rediscover this glamorous, gifted and outspoken free spirit. At the 2019 Grammy Awards, Keys gave a shout-out to Scott after sitting between two pianos to play a little ragtime. Soon the hits on YouTube, clips of Scott from the 1940s skyrocketed.
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This fall, Washington Performing Arts (WPA) and the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) are launching their own Scott revival with a series of public events. A PBS American Masters documentary about Scott entitled “The Disappearance of Miss Scott” is also in production, although the release date has not been announced.
“How is it possible that this woman was one of the most famous artists in American history, considering her wealth and her presence on TV and radio, and yet she is unknown?” said Jenny Bilfield, president of Washington Performing Arts, a presentation organization.
“That was scary for us.”
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Scott’s disappearance is astonishing any way you look at it. She had achieved the American Dream. Born in Trinidad, she moved to New York with her mother when she was just a toddler. Already a piano prodigy, she shocked the prestigious Juilliard School into accepting her at age 8 by playing her own riff on Rachmaninoff. She eventually changed jazz with her exuberant, upbeat touch, hands racing like rapids in a blur over the keys.
She refused to play in segregated clubs. She made a handful of films and insisted that she only play herself. Not for her were the minor roles black women could be pushed into — and not for everyone around her either. In “The Heat’s On,” a 1943 film starring Mae West, Scott refused to sing and play the piano in a scene where other black women danced in filthy aprons full of grease and oil.
“She said, ‘I won’t be a part of this,'” said Karen Chilton, who wrote the book “Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, From Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC.” “She said to them, ‘You can’t paint us this way. We’ll walk away until the costumes are replaced.’ And all the women followed her lead,” Chilton said. After a three-day boycott, the aprons were swapped out for pretty dresses. Not long after, Scott’s Hollywood career was over.
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It doesn’t matter – she transitioned into television and in 1950 became the first black American to host a weekly TV show built around herself, with no guest artists, just Scott and her backup band, which included future jazz greats Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums.
But shortly after the premiere of “The Hazel Scott Show,” Scott was mentioned along with 150 others in Red Channels, a publication that purported to oust alleged communists and sympathizers on radio and television. Chilton thinks Scott was targeted because she was performing at Cafe Society, New York’s legendary (and integrated) nightclub. Many of his regulars suffered guilt by association; the owner’s brother, Chilton said, had communist ties. Scott’s marriage to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from Harlem also scrutinized her.
“One of the politicians he campaigned for was a recognized communist member,” Chilton said. “Adam was going to ask her to play for a fundraiser, and Hazel was in the crosshairs, even though she wasn’t a member of it.”
Her TV show was canceled along with everything else. Furious, Scott vowed to defend himself by speaking voluntarily before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Her husband thought this was a terrible idea. Their son, Adam Clayton Powell III, was 5 or 6 years old at the time and remembers an argument over dinner.
“My father said, ‘Don’t do this, you can’t beat these people,'” Powell said in a recent interview. “She said, ‘But I am’ Turn right. I’m going to tell them they’re the ones who are un-American.’ ”
And she did. Of course it made no difference – except for the arc of her own career. She was “invisible,” says Linda Murray, curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. People of color were particularly prone to falling through the cracks of history if they were blacklisted, she said.
“It kept them off the main stages. Their work has not been photographed, reviewed or documented,” Murray said. “Our history is written by what we leave behind, and we don’t have the documents to remember these artists.”
With her livelihood gone, Scott moved to Paris, where she lived a smaller musical life. But while the American public may have forgotten her, fellow jazz musicians were not.
“I’d come home from school and Lester Young could be sitting on the couch,” Powell said. His father was left behind and the couple eventually divorced. Mother and son found a new family as expats who opened their home to traveling colleagues.
“Duke Ellington’s whole band might be joining us for dinner,” Powell said. “I played checkers with Quincy Jones. My two ‘aunts’ were Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, and my ‘uncle’ was Dizzy Gillespie.”
But when Scott returned to New York in the 1960s, she struggled to find work in the shadows of Miles Davis, Motown and the Beatles. She died in 1981 at the age of 61, unknown to most – except her musician friends. Gillespie, Powell said, joined him at his mother’s bedside while she was in a coma and suffering from cancer. The great trumpeter put a mute in his horn and played her softly, and just before she died, Powell said, “She opened her eyes and smiled.”
Last week at Sidney Harman Hall in downtown Washington, WPA kicked off its fall season with Dance Theater of Harlem performances with a new ballet commissioned by WPA, titled “Sounds of Hazel.” It was choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher in a mix of hip-swaying Afro-Caribbean dance, swing dance and soft-edged ballet. The sound design, created by composer Erica “Twelve45” Blunt, included a number of Scott’s piano recordings and excerpts from a torrid radio interview Scott gave in 1951.
In episodic form, the ballet evoked key moments in Scott’s life: Trinidad and its calypso rhythms; the jazz scene at Cafe Society; and the elegance of Paris.
However, for all its color and range, the work clearly presented the challenge of rekindling Scott’s interpretive fire and her warmth and ease as a musician. Scott was an artist, not a composer or songwriter, so what remains of her work is a relatively small collection of her recordings. In this ballet, her personality power was most movingly expressed in the recorded radio interview, which can be heard in a voice-over.
“Dwarves don’t belong in this country. It’s too big for them, it’s too big for them,” Scott declared in a clear, tinkling voice as a group of dancers spun slowly and widening, leaving the stage one by one.
“I’m so glad I’m a citizen of America,” Scott continued, as a young man, shirtless and muscular, was left alone. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” The dancer stared defiantly into the audience before sauntering into the wings.
DTH will tour the ballet to Charleston October 20-21, Seattle on November 5, and, in 2023, to New York and Worcester, Massachusetts. In the Washington area, WPA continues its Scott celebration with “A Night at Cafe Society,” Nov. 11 at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, featuring live performances and archival audio and video.
WPA had wanted these events to take place in 2020, Scott’s centenary, but the coronavirus pandemic got in the way. It’s likely that now is the better time, after the racial reckoning of 2020 and the growing interest in black performers. If Scott’s story is in some sense one of missed timing – she was a TV pioneer who couldn’t capitalize on the rise of TV; a star who was silenced as her popularity grew – this revival, modest as it may be now, feels like it’s landing at the right time.
“If we don’t find ways to make this moment visible to the next generation,” WPA’s Bilfield said, “it will be lost.”