What Happened Hazel Scott? Meet the Brilliant Jazz Musician & Activist Who Disappeared into Obscurity When She Was Blacklisted During the McCarthy Era

Women in the enter­tain­ment busi­ness who have tak­en a stand against racism and state vio­lence and oppres­sion have often found their careers ruined as a result, their albums and per­for­mances boy­cotted, oppor­tu­ni­ties rescind­ed. This, accord­ing to Nina Simone, is what hap­pened to her after she began her fight for Civ­il Rights with the fero­cious “Mis­sis­sip­pi God­dam.” She con­tin­ued per­form­ing in Europe until the 1990s, but her cul­tur­al stock in her own coun­try declined after the 60s. She was large­ly unknown to younger gen­er­a­tions until Lau­ryn Hill and lat­er hip hop artists turned her music into a “secret weapon.”

Maybe the music of Hazel Scott will enjoy a sim­i­lar revival now that her name has been returned to pop­u­lar con­scious­ness by Ali­cia Keys, who paid trib­ute to Scott at last year’s Gram­mys. Once the biggest star in jazz, Scott’s career was destroyed by the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC) in the 1950s when a pub­li­ca­tion called Red Chan­nels accused her of Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thies. Black­list­ed, she moved to Paris and per­formed exclu­sive­ly in Europe until the mid-six­ties. As with many an artist who suf­fered this fate dur­ing the Cold War, Scott stood accused of anti-Amer­i­can­ism not for any actu­al sup­port of the Sovi­ets but because she chal­lenged racial seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion at home.

Born in Trinidad and raised by her moth­er in New York City, like Simone, Scott was a clas­si­cal­ly trained child prodi­gy (see her play jazz-infused Liszt for World War II sol­diers in the video below), whose ear­ly, some­times vio­lent, expe­ri­ences with racism left last­ing scars. She audi­tioned for Jul­liard at age 8. “When she fin­ished,” writes Loris­sa Rine­heart at Nar­ra­tive­ly, “the audi­tions direc­tor whis­pered, ‘I am in the pres­ence of a genius.” Jul­liard founder Frank Dam­rosch agreed, and she was admit­ted.

Scott’s moth­er Alma, her­self a jazz musi­cian, “befriend­ed some of the Harlem Renaissance’s bright­est stars,” and the young Scott grew up sur­round­ed by the lead­ing lights of jazz. When she got her big break at 19, tak­ing over a three-week engage­ment for Bil­lie Hol­i­day, she imme­di­ate­ly joined the ranks of Harlem’s finest.

As it turned out, not only was Scott a bril­liant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, com­fort­ing yet provoca­tive — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sub­lime melan­choly that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.

She was flown to Hol­ly­wood in the ear­ly 40s to appear in musi­cals, but refused to coun­te­nance the usu­al racist stereo­types in film. Rel­e­gat­ed to bit parts, she returned to New York. “I had antag­o­nized the head of Colum­bia Pic­tures,” she wrote in her jour­nal. “In short, com­mit­ted sui­cide.” But she con­tin­ued her activism, and her career con­tin­ued to thrive. Final­ly, “she came to break the col­or bar­ri­er on the small screen” becom­ing the first black woman to host her own show in 1950. “Three nights a week, Scott played her sig­na­ture mix of boo­gie-woo­gie, clas­sics, and jazz stan­dards to liv­ing rooms across Amer­i­ca. It was a land­mark moment.”

And it was not to last. That same year, Scott vol­un­tary appeared before HUAC to answer the sup­posed charges against her, remain­ing calm in the face of hours of ques­tion­ing and read­ing an elo­quent pre­pared state­ment. “It has nev­er been my prac­tice to choose the pop­u­lar course,” she said. “When oth­ers lie as nat­u­ral­ly as they breathe, I become frus­trat­ed and angry.” She con­clud­ed “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.”

Weeks lat­er, her show was can­celed “and con­cert book­ings became few and far between,” writes her biog­ra­ph­er Karen Chilton at Smith­son­ian. “The government’s sus­pi­cions were enough to cause irrepara­ble dam­age to her career,” and damn her to obscu­ri­ty when she deserves a place next to con­tem­po­rary greats like Hol­i­day, Ella Fitzger­ald, Duke Elling­ton, and oth­ers. “After a decade of liv­ing abroad, she would return to an Amer­i­can music scene that no longer val­ued what she had to offer.” Learn much more about Hazel Scott in the short doc­u­men­tary video, “What Ever Hap­pened to Hazel Scott,” at the top, and in Chilton’s book Hazel Scott: The Pio­neer­ing Jour­ney of a Jazz Pianist, from Café Soci­ety to Hol­ly­wood to HUAC.

via Nar­ra­tive­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertolt Brecht Tes­ti­fies Before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (1947)

Ayn Rand Helped the FBI Iden­ti­fy It’s A Won­der­ful Life as Com­mu­nist Pro­pa­gan­da

Watch a New Nina Simone Ani­ma­tion Based on an Inter­view Nev­er Aired in the U.S. Before

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.