Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Horn Section Salutes: HAZEL SCOTT (1920-1981)

Friday, June 11th would have been the late, great Hazel Scott’s 90th birthday. A child prodigy who learned the piano by ear at age 3 and was allowed to enroll in the Juillard School of Music at age 8 (16 was normally the minimum age!), Scott was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago and raised in New York City. By the time she was a teenager a she was hosting a radio show on WOR; by her 21st birthday, she’d made her Broadway debut in SING OUT THE NEWS.

Along with her contemporary Lena Horne, Hazel Scott refused to perform for segregated audiences. It was only the start of a lifetime of activism for the jazz legend, who continued to stand up for Civil Rights when Hollywood came calling in 1942.  Hazel Scott entered the film world on her terms: she turned down the stereotypical and subservient roles Tinseltown was offering.  Insisting on playing and being billed as herself, the outspoken pianist soon had a reputation for "being difficult" that (along with her 1945 marriage) shortened her film career.  Scott's very accurate protest regarding wardrobe in 1943's THE HEAT’S ON proved particularly damaging.

But the courageous stand taken by Hazel Scott unquestionably helped pave the way for the greater opportunities black actresses would receive in the decades that followed. She would appear in only five features before returning to recordings and concerts full time: SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT, I DOOD IT and THE HEAT'S ON (with Mae West) in 1943; BROADWAY RHYTHM (1944) and in perhaps her most memorable appearance, RHAPSODY IN BLUE (1945).

Bet you didn’t know Scott was a pioneer on TV too.  The first African-American performer to host a network series was not Leslie Uggams (1969) or Nat “King” Cole (1957)—it was Hazel Scott.  In 1950(!) when Uncle Miltie was still TV’s top attraction and I LOVE LUCY was still a year into the future, THE HAZEL SCOTT SHOW aired on the original “fourth network”, DuMont, and featured Ms. Scott as the solo star in three 15 minute programs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week.

The clip at the top is from a later TV appearance in 1955, with Hazel Scott supported by legendary bassist Charlie Mingus and Rudy Nichols and singing in English AND French (just two of her seven languages) for the March of Dimes. Do yourself a favor: don’t stop with that highlight, or the other two clips from Ms. Scott's films linked above. Go to YouTube and check out more of Hazel Scott.  For example, this terrific clip from 1943:

She was a jazz legend whose 1955 album Relaxed Piano Moods is regarded as an undisputed classic.  A 1978 inductee into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame despite the fact that she only appeared in 5 feature films.  A bold, independent lady who fought against both segregation and McCarthyism--her HUAC testimony was particularly courageous and powerful.

There’s so much more to tell about Hazel Scott and I can really only scratch the surface with a blog post.  For further reading about her, I give my highest recommendation for Karen Chilton’s terrific 2008 biography Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC to learn more about a true groundbreaker. 

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