The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Janet McKinney. To celebrate Black History Month and commemorate the centennial of Hazel Scott, the Music Division is pleased to announce a new online finding aid for the Hazel Scott Papers.
An African-American jazz and classical pianist, singer, and actor, Hazel Scott was an extremely significant figure in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Born in 1920 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, she moved with her mother to Harlem, New York, at the age of four. Scott was recognized as a piano prodigy, and was accepted as a student at the Juilliard School at age eight, despite being too young to meet the school’s stated age requirement. Scott and her mother, herself a classically trained pianist, began giving jazz performances throughout the city. During Scott’s teenage years she played piano, trumpet, and saxophone in various all-girl jazz bands, including her mother’s group, “Alma Long Scott’s All-Girl Jazz Band.”
Scott achieved widespread recognition at age nineteen when, on Billie Holiday’s recommendation, she took over Holiday’s engagement at Café Society, the first integrated nightclub in the United States. Scott dazzled audiences with her ability to “jazz up” classical works, and she would record her first album, Swinging the Classics, in 1940. She made her Broadway debut in Sing Out the News in 1938 and later appeared in the musical revue Priorities of 1942. In a pioneering move, Scott refused to accept any of the subservient film roles typically offered African-American women at that time; she appeared as herself in five motion pictures between 1943 and 1945.
By the mid-1940s Scott had become one of the best-known African-American entertainers in the United States, and she gained additional press attention when she married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1945. Powell was the first African-American congressman from New York, and Scott and Powell each worked to further the causes of social justice and to fight racism and discrimination.
In July 1950, Hazel Scott became the first African-American to host their own television program, The Hazel Scott Show. It was an immediate success, and the DuMont Network quickly increased the national broadcasts each week from one to three. However, her efforts as a civil rights activist, along with the suspicion that Café Society was a gathering place of the communist party, resulted in Hazel Scott being named in the pamphlet Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. Scott voluntarily appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee on September 22, 1950. She prepared her own statement of defense denying the allegations, and condemned the efforts of the committee as “vicious slanders of little and petty men.” The Hazel Scott Show was canceled one week later.
Escaping the oppressive McCarthyism environment, Scott sought refuge in Paris. Her marriage to Powell was also falling apart, and they divorced in 1960 after a lengthy separation. With Paris as a home base, she continued to perform widely in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. She appeared in the French film Le Désordre et la Nuit (1958), hosted a salon of expatriate artists in her Paris home, and marched on the American embassy in solidarity with the 1963 March on Washington. Occasionally Scott would return to America, and on one such trip she recorded the acclaimed album Relaxed Piano Moods (1955) with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Scott moved back to the United States in 1967 and continued to give concerts. She also appeared on television in shows such as The Bold Ones, Julia, and One Life to Live. Although her fame never equaled the heights it reached in the 1940s and 1950s, her legacy as a consummate musician continues to inspire performers.
The Hazel Scott Papers include correspondence, photographs, clippings, programs, business papers, datebooks, and other materials that document her life as an entertainer and activist. Particularly interesting are a number of her handwritten lyric sheets, giving insight into the songs in her performance repertoire and the chords she chose to accompany them. Equally fascinating are notes and multiple drafts for an autobiography Scott was writing, but never published. We are confident that the collection of this talented and trailblazing woman will provide opportunities for fruitful research and discovery.