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She could play the piano by ear at the age of 3 and was accepted into the prestigious Julliard school of music at age 8. By 19 she was headlining at Café Society, the first racially integrated club in New York City. She went on to become a successful Hollywood film star, fierce Civil Rights activist, and the first Black woman to host her own television show. She counted Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Dizzy Gillespie as close friends, dominating the jazz scene as a piano virtuoso who put her own spin on the classics. Her rise to the top was nothing short of inspirational, the American dream at its finest, loved by all, glowing, electric. But did you know, you’ve probably never even heard of her? Let’s fix that. 


Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we’re talking about Hazel Scott. Hazel who? Right? Don’t feel bad. It’s not really your fault that you’ve never heard of her. She was erased, essentially from collective knowledge, invisible-ized. Shout out to my sister Hannah for suggesting this topic. This story right here is what History Fix is all about. Bringing people like Hazel Scott out of the shadows she was unjustly shoved into by the powers that be. 


Side note, if you ever want to suggest a topic for a future History Fix episode, hit me up. You can DM me on instagram @historyfixpodcast or email me I have  a big ‘ol list of ideas that I’m adding to all the time but some of the greatest have been suggestions from folks just like yourself. So, please don’t hold back.  


So I had definitely never heard of Hazel Scott until Hannah shared a video with me of this gorgeous, vivacious Black woman playing two pianos at the same time. She’s so incredibly talented and vibrant and just, it’s just impossible to stop watching her play. It’s mesmerizing. You can see some of this video in my latest Instagram reel about this episode. I was captivated by her immediately. She has the it factor, hard. Whatever Anne Boleyn had, she has that. But as I learned more about her, about her story, I could not believe that I had never heard of her before. She was such a prominent figure in the music scene but also in the Civil Rights scene. Honestly we should know her name just as well as we know Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. I mean she reached her peak of social influence 5 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, over a decade before MLK gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” She was nothing short of iconic before she disappeared completely, erased, poof, gone, her beautiful light completely extinguished. 


So let’s go back to the beginning to uncover what exactly happened to Hazel Scott. She was born in Trinidad in 1920. Her father was a scholar. He was West African but had moved to Trinidad from Liverpool, England. Her mother, Alma Scott, was a musician. She was a classically trained pianist and a music teacher. She taught piano lessons out of their house. At a very young age, a baby, a toddler, Hazel seemed in tune with music. When her mother’s piano students would hit a wrong note, Hazel would wail with displeasure. They weren’t really sure what to make of this. In her words quote “they had been amused, but no one regarded my urge as latent talent.” Until she was 3. That’s when she waltzed over to her mother’s piano and began tapping out a familiar church hymn her grandmother sang to her every day at nap time. And they were like “Ohh, okay, she can play the piano, I guess, alright.” 


And I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve had this exact same experience. My son is a bit of a piano prodigy himself. He is 4 and a half right now and he could definitely do this by the time he was 4. I don’t know about 3, we didn’t have a piano then so who knows. But I remember, probably around his 4th birthday I was like messing around in the kitchen or whatever and he was playing around on the piano. He had some songs memorized. I had written down the notes for him and he memorized them, cause he has an insane memory, so he’s playing like parts of Turkish March, William Tell Overture is a favorite. But anyway those were all just memorized. This particular time, he called me over and he was like “Mama, watch this,” and then he just started playing the tune of Frere Jacques. And I was like, “oh cool, did Dada teach you that one?” And he was like “nope, I just figured it out.” So yeah, mind blowing. It’s a mind blowing experience. We have him in piano lessons now, by the way. We haven’t called Julliard yet or anything, but all in good time. Haha just kidding, I mean, I don’t know maybe not kidding, we’ll see. 


Back to Hazel. So she’s showing clear musical talent at a very young age. At that point, her wonderful mother shifted her focus from her own musical career and started focusing on helping Hazel develop this natural gift. Hazel later referred to her mother Alma as quote “the single biggest influence in my life.” And this is what it’s all about mamas. We give and give and give. We often give up our own dreams to help our children accomplish theirs. But the reward is even sweeter. Fathers too. I know there are fathers out there making these sacrifices as well. Unfortunately, Hazel’s father was not one of them. By the time she was 4 he had peaced out and was basically nonexistent throughout the rest of her life. 


At that time, her mother, now a single parent, moved to New York City with Hazel and Hazel’s grandmother Margaret. So, 1920’s New York City. I’m going to bring you back to episode 21 about prohibition for a minute. Although the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages is illegal in the United States right now, alcohol culture is taking off. During this decade we see the birth of the night club, the cabaret, men and women drinking together socially, listening to live music, dancing. This is the birth of jazz which, originally, was played almost entirely by black musicians. 


Originally Hazel’s mother Alma took a job as a maid in Harlem but, struggling financially, she returned to what she knew best - music. And she’s really in the perfect place at the perfect time for it. She had been trained as a classical pianist. But classical music was out and jazz was in. So she taught herself how to play a saxophone and joined Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Orchestra. Lil Hardin Armstrong was one of the most prominent women in early jazz so by joining her orchestra playing around New York City, Alma became part of this community of extremely talented Black jazz musicians. Their home became a sort of hub with these artists constantly passing through. So young Hazel is being mentored really by jazz greats like Art Tatum, Lester Young, and Fats Waller. They were like her family and the influence they had on her musical career was profound. 


In 1928 Hazel auditioned for enrollment in the prestigious Juilliard school of music. Now, normally you had to be at least 16 years old to get into Julliard. Hazel was only 8. She got the audition thanks to help from some of these wealthy successful musician friends of her mother’s. They were like “alright, alright, come play the piano for us but, you know, you’re only 8 so maybe we’ll call you in another 8 years.” But she absolutely blew them away at this audition with her own jazzy rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.” Professor Oscar Wagner declared her a musical genius and arranged to teach her privately through a special scholarship.  


Throughout high school she hosted her own radio show, performed music at night, and still managed to graduate with honors from Wadleigh High School. This was the first public high school for girls in New York City and now it’s a performing and visual arts school. Which I love. But you know, perusing their website, they have listed a few names of famous artists and such that attended the school throughout the years and Hazel Scott’s name is noticeably absent. Her removal from history was so complete, even her old high school has completely overlooked her. 


She made her Broadway debut soon after high school and was soon headlining at Café Society which was the first integrated nightclub in New York City. So black people and white people were mixed together. The club served people regardless of race. And this was pretty unique. Typically clubs were segregated. This is pre-Civil Rights. The higher end clubs only served white people although the musicians were basically all black. Hazel was not okay with this. She refused to play in front of segregated audiences. She was one of the first black entertainers to include a clause in her contract specifically stating this. She remarked, quote “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” Which, yeah, great question.


So this made her rather exclusive. There were only certain venues she was willing to play. But it didn’t really matter because she was so good, her career took off anyway. She had a unique style that people really loved that’s referred to as “jazzing the classics.” So basically she would start out playing classical music like Bach or Beethoven and then she would start to put her own spin on it, often improvising, twisting classics into jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie. It was a hit. Her albums shattered sales records and her shows sold out. She was wildly successful as a musician. Here’s a little clip of Hazel playing: (audio clip).


After catching the acting bug on Broadway, Hazel moved to Los Angeles and signed with a major movie studio but soon found that Hollywood was incredibly racist. She turned down the first 4 roles offered to her which were all parts for a singing maid. Instead she appeared as herself in 5 films and insisted on the credit “Hazel Scott as herself.” She demanded to be paid equally to her white counterparts, which duh, but we’re in the 1940’s now so this is pretty unheard of at the time. She got it though. She got the equal pay. 


But these demands, unfortunately, eventually led to the end of her acting career. In 1943 she got a part in the movie “The Heat’s On” where she was supposed to sing and play piano while other black women danced in dirty aprons streaked with grease and oil. Hazel was like nope, “I will not be part of this” and walked off the set demanding that the costumes be replaced. The other women followed her lead and after a 3 day boycott, producers finally ditched the aprons and replaced them with floral dresses. But that was the end of her movie career. She was basically blacklisted in Hollywood after that stunt. But I so admire her conviction. I love that she’s willing to just throw it all away, to stand up for principles she believes in. That’s such a rare and beautiful quality in a human. It takes so much strength and confidence to do that. 


Back in New York, she began a somewhat scandalous affair with a preacher and politician named Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Powell was a civil rights activist who became the first black New York congressman. Buuut he was already married. He was a bit of a womanizer though and he apparently pursued Hazel relentlessly which annoyed her at first. But eventually she started to like him? I mean I don’t know you’re always gonna get a side eye from me when you have a powerful man aggressively pursuing a woman into submission. It’s very Henry VIII, but whatever. They eventually got married in 1945 just days after Powell’s divorce with his previous wife was final. At least he didn’t have her beheaded, I guess. It was scandalous for sure. They were both prominent public figures. The media was all over it. In 1945, the couple had a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. 


In 1950 Hazel was approached by the Dumont Network to host her own television show. It was called the Hazel Scott Show. She starred in little 15 minute episodes where she sang and played piano 3 times a week. Sometimes she sang in different languages because apparently Hazel could speak 7 different languages. Like everything Hazel did, the show was a hit. She was a natural TV show host, with her vibrant personality and irresistible smile. The show, which first just aired in New York City but soon became nationwide, was critically acclaimed and had decent reviews. One review in Variety Magazine claimed “Hazel Scott has a neat little show in this modest package. Most engaging element in the air is the Scott personality which is dignified, yet relaxed and versatile.” Dignified yet relaxed is a really good way to put it. If you watch my Instagram Reel, I think you’ll agree. 


Despite the success of the show, it was short lived. After only a few months, Hazel’s name appeared in Red Channels which was a pamphlet that listed suspected communist sympathizers within the entertainment industry. So here I’m going to have to pause for a moment to give you some context. This is 1950, the height of the second red scare. So, during this time in US history, people were really paranoid and freaked out about communism. They worried that communism would catch on in the United States and destroy their freedom, their way of life. There was a lot of fear driven by conspiracy theories that influential Americans were secretly communist spies feeding information to the Soviet Union. 


So this is the second red scare. The first red scare happened right after the Bolshevik Revolution back in 1917 when Russia turned into the Soviet Union and became a communist country. But then the Soviet Union became an unexpected ally during World War II. At first, they had a nonaggression pact with Germany. So it kind of seemed like Stalin was going to be on Hitler’s team. But then Germany invaded the Soviet Union and they were like “umm, what the heck?” and joined the allied forces, like the UK and the US fighting against the Nazis and were actually instrumental in helping to end World War II. They  were an important ally on the side of the good guys. 


After the war, the United States and the Soviet Union both emerged victorious as major world powers. So naturally a sort of competition formed between the two. We talked about this some in episode 16 about Chernobyl. They were rivals in a race for world dominance, basically. This is what started the Cold War in 1947. They were competing to have the best military, the most weapons, nuclear weapons, nevermind the threat of complete global annihilation. It’s all very childish. But this led to a lot of fear and paranoia in the US about the spread of communism and suspected espionage on American soil, people feeding information to the soviets. 


So after World War II, at the start of the cold war, President Truman started the Federal Employee Loyalty Program where the FBI basically tried to sniff out communist spies within the US government. And, they did actually find a handful of them that were passing information to the soviets. So it wasn’t all paranoia, there was some truth to it. The problem was, they just took it way too far. The movement eventually started to sweep up people who had no real connection to national security or communism even. It turned into a witch hunt, basically. Congress formed the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC which started trying to root out communists in Hollywood. And they did, they found some, but this only served as a catalyst to launch the whole operation to absurd, unfounded, discriminatory levels. 


So Red Channels was a document published by the House Un-American Activities Committee trying to out suspected communists. And it is this pamphlet that brought Hazel’s tv show success to a screeching halt. Hazel was not actually a communist though, nor a communist sympathizer. She had almost no ties to the communist party whatsoever. So why did her name appear in Red Channels? They had listed 9 organizations, all with communist ties, where she had performed. But she only recognized one of the nine names. She had never even heard of the other eight. 


She was determined to set the record straight and voluntarily appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to defend herself. Her husband thought it was a terrible idea. He begged her not to do it, telling her “you can’t win against these people.” But she did it anyway stating quote “It has never been my practice to choose the popular course. When others lie as naturally as they breathe, I become frustrated and angry.” 


At the hearing, she tried to explain that, as an artist, she was hired to perform and rarely knew of any political affiliations of the people who had hired her. But the committee wasn’t hearing any of it. After hours of brutal questioning Hazel rested her case with quote “…may I end with one request—and that is that your committee protect those Americans who have honestly, wholesomely, and unselfishly tried to perfect this country and make the guarantees in our Constitution live. The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help, to serve. Our country needs us more today than ever before. We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men.”


And I have to imagine they were not pleased with that last bit there, when she called them little and petty men. I love it though, get um girl. Cause you know this committee was just a bunch of middle aged white men, every last one of them. She deserves a medal for that, honestly. 


But unfortunately, history is rarely that just. Instead of a medal she was blacklisted, erased. According to a Smithsonian Magazine article by Karen Chilton quote “the entertainment community applauded her fortitude, but the government’s suspicions were enough to cause irreparable damage to her career.” end quote. Her TV show was canceled and opportunities for musical performances started drying up. 


Around the same time, her marriage started to crumble. The couple was under an incredible amount of stress, financial hardship, jealousy and suspicions of infidelity in their marriage. Remember Powell was married when he got together with Hazel. Once a cheater always a cheater right? That’s what they say. They divorced in 1960 and Hazel moved to France with her son where they lived in basically a black expatriate community in Paris. Her home became once again, a hub for black musicians to gather. Many of the greats visited her in Paris. According to her son Adan Powell III in a Washington Post article by Sarah L. Kaufman quote “I’d come home from school and Lester Young might be on the couch. The entire Duke Ellington band might come to dinner in our apartment. I played checkers with Quincy Jones. My two ‘aunts’ were Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, and my ‘uncle’ was Dizzy Gillespie.” So while America moved on without her, she was not forgotten by her contemporaries. Actually there’s a really cool picture of Hazel with some of these jazz legends on the beach in Cannes, France on my instagram. It’s worth a look. And, you know, despite it all she looks really happy in this photo. She’s clearly trying to make the best of a bad situation. She briefly remarried an Italian comedian named Ezio Bedin. But I guess that didn’t last. There were low points for sure. She reportedly tried to commit suicide twice by overdosing on pills. Her health started to suffer, she struggled to pay rent. Finally some of her musician friends convinced her to move back home, closer to the people who supported her, who still had her back. 


In 1967 Hazel returned to the United States but she struggled to find work in the entertainment industry. The jazz era had been taken over by Motown and the British Invasion, the Beatles, rock and roll. Suddenly, her music seemed old fashioned. But she managed to play a few gigs here and there and even scored a few guest roles on tv shows and soap operas. During this time, she drafted an autobiography where she wrote about her often painful experience as a black woman in America and detailed scenes in her life when she had been taken advantage of because of her race and gender. That was never published, which like, someone get on that please. Can we find this draft? Pretty sure whatever Hazel said in that book needs to be heard. 


Hazel Scott died in 1981 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61, unknown by most at this point, a nobody in the eyes of the public. But not to her musician friends. Famous jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was present at her bedside when she passed away. According to her son, Gillespie played his trumpet softly for her just before she died and she opened her eyes and smiled. 


And then she really was gone, in the flesh and in our collective consciousness, until the last few years. At the 2019 Grammy awards, artist Alicia Keys sat between two pianos and played a ragtime song as a homage to Hazel Scott. She said quote “I’ve been thinking so much about the people in the music that have inspired me and I want to give a shout out to Hazel Scott cause I always wanted to play two pianos…” at which point, I’m sure the audience was like “Hazel who?” and just pretended to know what the heck she was talking about so they didn’t look dumb but after that, Hazel has emerged more and more from the darkness, and people are just as impressed by her today as they were almost a century ago. A PBS American Masters documentary is in the works called “The Disappearance of Miss Scott.” That’s supposed to be released some time this year. 


Last year Washington Performing Arts and the Dance Theatre of Harlem launched a sort of Scott revival with a new ballet called “Sounds of Hazel.” Washington Performing Arts president Jenny Bilfield said in that Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, quote ““How is it possible that this woman was one of the most famous performers in American history, when you think of her wealth and her presence on TV and radio, and yet she’s unknown? That was horrifying to us.” The ballet includes recordings of Hazel playing piano and excerpts of her voice from a radio interview she gave in 1951 as the dancers act out key events in her life. 


But really, what steals the show is that radio interview. I want to play you a quick clip of it from the WNYC archives and I, of course, have this linked in the description if you want to hear more. (audio clip). 


And you guys I’m in tears, I’m in tears over this. I have the same wishes for my 4 and a half year old son 72 years later. “All racial prejudice eliminated as one removes a cancer from the body of a loved one in order to prolong its life.” And the foreshadowing there is not lost on me as Hazel lay dying of cancer 30 years after this recording, forgotten by the world. Just as the cancer consumed her body, the prejudice consumes our society still, racial and otherwise. At the time of this recording, her son, Adam Powell III is still alive. He’s 77 years old and I don’t expect that he will live long enough to see his mother’s dream realized. We still have a long way to go. 


But Adam has done a lot to bring his mother out of invisibility. In 2020, he donated over 4,000 items to the Library of Congress archives collection including music, diaries, contracts, scores, photos, and that unpublished autobiography, so there you go. Someone needs to do something with that, for real. In an article for Library of Congress Magazine by Neely Tucker, Adam says quote “I’ve always wanted to do what I could to make sure that she was not lost. Not just in video clips … but her intelligence and her talent and her values and her stubbornness as it were, so it could be something that was accessible to everybody.”


Hazel Scott wasn’t a communist. She wasn’t a threat to American security. She loved America. She was trying to make it better. This was all a cover, a bogus excuse to take away her podium, to silence her. They silenced her because she spoke her mind. She spoke the truth and they didn’t like what she had to say. It’s time to bring her back. Please tell someone about Hazel Scott. Send them an instagram Reel just like my sister sent to me. Tell them about this episode of History Fix. Watch that PBS special when it comes out. Something. Bring Hazel Scott back. She never deserved to disappear but it’s not too late for her message, her beautiful soul to shine through and make an impact on us today. We still need Hazel Scott. Don’t let them silence her.


(audio clip).


Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. Feel free to reach out through Instagram or email if you ever want to share an idea for an episode. I can’t share lesser known, unknown history like this if I don’t know about it. So please don’t keep the Hazel Scotts to yourself. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.  


Information used in this episode was sourced from Library of Congress Magazine, National Women’s History Museum, the Washington Post, Library of Congress Blogs, Smithsonian Magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica, the National WWII Museum of New Orleans, the New Yorker magazine, and New York Public Radio WNYC. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes. 

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