Saturday, January 07, 2017

From The Bandstand To The Movies: Hazel Scott

"Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro," she told Time Magazine, "and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?"Hazel Scott"

Ringing in the new year by, you guessed it, watching 1940's movies and looking up excerpts from same on YouTube, this blogger found himself totally flabbergasted by the following clip: an awe-inspiring keyboard wizard playing two pianos at the same time.

The thought, who was that lady - an astonishing musician and strikingly beautiful, elegant woman, giving Paderewski, Gershwin, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Teddy Wilson a run for their money?

The answer to "who was that lady?" was not "that was no lady, that was my wife" but the exceptional virtuoso pianist, vocalist, performer, actress and recording artist Hazel Scott (1920-1981).

Among various points in her relatively brief but eventful life, she was a prodigy, concert pianist, radio star, social and political activist, celebrated Parisian expatriate and actress in television in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Clearly, from reading such articles as Hazel Scott's Lifetime Of High Notes from Smithsonian, a bio penned by Dwayne Mack for Black, as well as watching the following 20 minute YouTube piece, those researching her life were mightily impressed.

Her influence spread far beyond the confines of the concert hall. Ms. Scott was quite the social activist: a mover and a shaker, at one point married to Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Perusing a few books and articles about Ms. Scott, it was clear all who researched her life were astonished - and worked very hard to just begin to scratch the surface. Karen Chilton's biography, Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC, tells her story in detail.

Hazel was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and mastered the Euro-classical and jazz repertoires at a very tender age. She studied at Juilliard, began playing in a jazz band in her teens and began frequently performing on radio at age 16. Hazel recorded prolifically, starting in the late 1930's.

Her specialty would be "swinging the classics." Musically, Hazel explores a similar boogie woogie + classical + jazz artistic terrain to the Cab Calloway Big Band's virtuoso pianist Dorothy Donegan.

As a jazz pianist and vocalist, Hazel rose to fame demonstrating pianistic prowess at the Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society, opened Café Society, opened by Barney Josephson in 1938 as a showcase for Billie Holiday and such fellow music luminaries as pianist Mary Lou Williams.

In Miss Scott's early work as a jazz piano soloist, arguably only the aforementioned Dorothy Donegan, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Jaki Byard could rival that ability to fly up and down the 88 keys and execute double-time and triple-time in "Super Waller" fashion.

Her movie career spanned several performances in 1943-1945, appearing as herself in musicals. One particularly jaw-dripping clip is Hazel's performance in the MGM revue picture I Dood It, which also featured Lena Horne.

Insisting on better roles for African-Americans in movies, Hazel turned down any and all roles as maids and other servile characters and took on no less than Harry Cohn at Columbia over demeaning costumes chosen for her female co-stars in The Heat's On.

That run-in with the not genteel, refined and forward-thinking Columbia Pictures chief would end the flurry of roles for the concert pianist in American movies. Hazel would make one more American film, Rhapsody In Blue, then record, tour and, in 1950, host her own TV show for the Dumont Network. Unfortunately, no clips of this exist.

While Hazel preceded Nat King Cole as a person of color to host a TV show, her progressive political activism made her a target. She was listed in the infamous "Red Channels" publication. Seems that in 1950, if one was an activist, union supporter or progressive - and didn't slip at least $50,000 bucks under the table to the right people to make sure that one's dossier gets overlooked - one's hosting gig and showbiz career could end abruptly. The show was cancelled a week after her appearance before HUAC, as she didn't "name names."

Undaunted, Ms. Scott relocated to Paris and resumed her music, acting and recording careers there.

Hazel did continue to play with her trio in clubs and record albums.

There were more acts in her life, including a comeback in frequent cabaret performances and, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, a return to acting in television. But before that, she made her mark with some exceptional albums.

Arguably her greatest recording as a jazz artist was Relaxed Piano Moods on the Debut Label. The style is less flashy and more contemplative than the earlier recordings, more akin to the ballad sides of Bud Powell (1924-1966) and Powell's friend and fellow under-appreciated pianist/composer of the 1950's and 1960's, Elmo Hope (1923-1967). This and her subsequent album on Decca would be a fitting coda to Hazel Scott's brilliant career in music.

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