This is a guest post by Anne McLean, a music specialist in the Music Division.
On Sept. 28 — that’s Wednesday — the Music Division partners with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Washington Performing Arts to present a special event saluting a pathbreaking Black artist: “Celebrating Hazel Scott: Pianist, Singer, Actress and Activist.”
The evening offers a display from the Library’s Hazel Scott collection and a sneak-peek excerpt from a new ballet created to honor her, “Sounds of Hazel.” Dance Theatre of Harlem company member Daphne Marcelle Lee will perform a brief segment to a recording by Scott herself. Biographer Karen Chilton will moderate a discussion on Scott’s life and legacy with choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher; Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; Adam Clayton Powell III, Scott’s son; and Music Division archivist Janet McKinney. The event is free but we ask that you do register to attend.
A prodigiously talented jazz and classical pianist, Scott was a glamorous figure, fluent in seven languages, and a brilliant star on stage and screen in the 1940s and early 1950s. As this blog noted it in the January–February issue of LCM, “Hazel Scott was the gorgeous face of jazz at the midcentury.”
She was featured in several Hollywood films, always appearing as herself, a bandleader and formidable pianist, performing virtuosic sets that often juxtaposed classical music and jazz. You can see her tour-de-force turn in the 1943 film “The Heat’s On,” where she plays on two pianos simultaneously while whirling between them on a swiveling stool — a feat to which Alicia Keys paid homage at the 2019 Grammy awards.
Scott’s circle of friends included legendary pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum — she regarded both as family members — as well as many artists who are icons today: Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Leonard Bernstein and Dizzy Gillespie, among others.
Scott’s marriage to Harlem congressman and minister Adam Clayton Powell Jr. brought her wider fame and heightened visibility as an influential civil rights activist. In 1950, addressing insinuations of Communist sympathies, she insisted on giving testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee; it was a stance that would cause the cancellation of her new television program, The Hazel Scott Show, and damage an extraordinary career.
The Library’s Scott event starts in the Whittall Pavilion at 5:45 p.m. with a display of treasures from the Scott collection, drawn from nearly 4,000 items, including music, photographs, letters, datebooks and diaries.
At 7 p.m., a short documentary will follow the creative team behind “Sounds of Hazel,” including choreographer Rea-Fisher and composer Erica Lewis-Blunt. Daphne Lee will perform a solo from the ballet set to Scott’s scintillating performance of Frédéric Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” from the film “Broadway Rhythm.”
“Hazel Scott was a diva with a capital ‘D,’ ” Rea-Fisher said, “but she was also super-grounded. She was not afraid to be raw and rough while also being glamorous.”
Because of her audacious nature, Rea-Fisher added, Scott was erased from history. “So, [celebrating] her for all that she is and was is really super, super exciting.”
Capping off the evening, pianist Janelle Gill will play Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” in a nod to Scott’s classical performances and her own composition “Give Thanks” with bassist Michael Bowie and drummer Lenny Robinson.