Great Scott!

By Loretta H. Campbell
Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC
By Karen Chilton
The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor, Michigan 2008, ISBN-13:978-0-472-11567-9
ISBN-10:0-472-11567-7  $29.95

p. 83. “Until my fight at Columbia, no Black person had even dared oppose the Establishment. You either kept your mouth shut and took the roles you could get or you remained out of work.” —Hazel Scott

    Always in the vanguard, Hazel Scott never lowered her professional standards or lost her nerve, as author Karen Chilton, (co-author of I Wish you Love: A Memoir of Gloria Lynn) illustrates in this measured biography. During the segregated abyss of 1943, Scott defied Harry Cohn, the head of Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures.

    Cohn’s nickname was King Cohn because he ruled the studio and brooked no questions about his orders. He and Scott had a head-to-head confrontation during the filming of the movie, The Heat’s On in which Scott had a small but significant role. In one scene of the film, the sweethearts and wives of Black soldiers are seeing their men off to war. Cohn okayed a decision to have these women wearing dirty dresses with messy hair. Scott insisted that Black women would dress in their best to see their loved ones off to war. When the director wouldn’t change the scene, she went on a three-day strike effectively stopping the production. Cohn agreed to her demands, but told her she would never work in Hollywood again as long as he lived. He made good on that promise. Her movie career in the U.S. languished for 20 years.

    Fortunately, Scott remained one of the highest paid jazz pianists in the world aptly named the “darling of café society, as Chilton outlines.” This was because Scott, a child prodigy, had been “woodshedding her work from the age of three. At that age, she created her first piano, of sorts. She played the floor of the family’s parlor in their native Trinidad. When her grandmother saw her, she put Scott on the real piano. She played it so well that her grandmother called the neighbors to watch. Not only had Scott never had a lesson, she had never played the piano before. She learned the keys by watching her mother, Alma, teach piano.

Alma’s own dreams of being a concert pianist were thwarted because of her weak wrists. She became her daughter’s first teacher and imposed strict practice rules on Scott. As a result, Scott’s technique and skill were strong. However, while her skills were getting her little gigs around their community, Alma’s work was drying up. Ever resourceful, Alma moved her small family to Harlem, NY. (Scott’s father had abandoned the family many years before. He occasionally resurfaced, but they had no real relationship). Once there, Alma took up various enterprises to support them.

    When these businesses didn’t work, she went back to what she knew—music. Scott recalled, “Months of contemplation led her to a choice that was as unlikely as it was unexpected. The saxophone. She would learn to play the saxophone. Without further consideration and very little discussion, she went down to a local music shop, rented a tenor sax, and sat down to teach herself the instrument. “ ‘ My mother started to learn the saxophone and she would practice in our tiny living room.’”

    Alma became so proficient that she supported her family by playing for and with some of the great musicians of her day. Among them Lil Hardin, Valaida Snow, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and the priceless Mary Lou Williams. Because of her mother’s talent and connections, Scott grew up with these extraordinary musicians as mentors and friends. When she was ready to step out on her own, they were part of her large extended family.

    Chilton’s describes Scott’s support system as not only artists in jazz. It included classical pianists and teachers. As a result of these and her prodigious talent, she was given an audition at New York’s Julliard School—at the age of eight. The requisite age for an audition was 16. However, Alma had somehow convinced the school administrators to hear her daughter. Scott so impressed them, including the head of Julliard, Dr. Frank Damrosch and Professor Oscar Wagner that they admitted Hazel and gave her private lessons.

    By the time she was fifteen, Scott was the featured attraction in nightclubs and working with the brightest lights of American classical music. She created a hybrid of boogie woogie and European classical music that garnered her fans around the world. She grew up in the music so to speak.

While still in her twenties, she commanded high salaries in clubs and in movies. She made recordings for several labels. Chilton has provided a scholarly list of Scott’s discography and a list of her movie and television roles in the back of the book.

Scott also met and fell in love with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Chilton describes the marriage as troubled from the beginning. The fact that the Powells were both celebrities made their private lives public. However, Chilton lets her research speak for itself. The facts are never colored with tabloidism.  

Powell was 11 years Scott’s senior and married to the actress Isabel Washington when he wooed Hazel. The Scott/Powell affair resulted in his divorce. Shortly, afterward, the two of them married. Initially, Scott’s income was nearly twice that of Powell’s. The couple lived lavishly. She had her own dress maker, hair dresser, and jeweler. However, Powell persuaded her to limit her career choices in order to have more time for their marriage. The union lasted eleven years, and the couple have a son, Adam Clayton Powell, III.

    During their marriage, they weathered many storms from without and within. The most famous of these was the House on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). Because many of Scott’s friends were avowed communists, and she herself was outspoken on Civil Rights issues, she was targeted as a communist. She wasn’t. Nonetheless, she found that HUAC had labeled her as such. The fact that she was the wife of now Senator Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. made no difference, Chilton emphasizes.

    Once again defying convention, Scott asked to speak before HUAC before being subpoenaed. She was granted a meeting, but it was too late. She was effectively blacklisted, Chilton explains. Scott went aboard to Europe for work. Her marriage to Powell was faltering because of his numerous extramarital affairs. It finally collapsed, and the couple divorced. Scott raised their son, nicknamed Skipper, alone.

    Scott remarried briefly to a white Italian named Ezio Bedin. They too divorced amicably. However, earning a living in Europe became difficult for Scott despite the fact that she spoke seven languages. Work dried up, and her career all but died. When she returned to America over a decade later, her career and she had lost most of the celebrity she had enjoyed.

    Chilton describes the last years of Scott’s life as delicately as she had Scott’s halcyon days. Scott got her dream job and called her son to proclaim the happy news.

    “I’ve got great news. This is fantastic news. Your mother has her dream job. Joe Kipnus says he’s going to open a new room on 45th Street and he wants to name it after me. I can play as many weeks a year as I want…. ‘Well, you know the superstition. When you get your dream job, you’re going to die.’ ”

  Scott played in the club for a week or two. A few weeks later, Hazel Scott died of pancreatic cancer.

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