Before it was the standard to be a Black performer and speak out against injustice, Hazel Scott (1920-1981) was doing it. The pianist, who garnered fame for her immense musical talents, used her platform to speak out against segregation, to demand the best opportunities, and to not shy away from allegations made about her, including that she was a part of the Communist Party. But before and after all of that, there was the music. Check out five things you should know about the jazz and classical pianist, as well as activist and historymaker.
She Was a Prodigy Who Attracted Crowds as a Teenager
The Trinidadian-born beauty was a musical prodigy, and it made sense considering that her mother was a talented pianist and music teacher. She was taught the piano starting at the age of three and could play by ear at an early age. In 1928, Hazel auditioned for a place at Juilliard’s School of Music. She was too young at the time, auditioning at the age of eight. But after making an impression with her skills, Hazel was offered a special scholarship by the school and cultivated her talents through private teachings. Soon after, she was a teenager playing for large audiences at the New York nightclub Café Society in Greenwich Village.
She Took a Stand Before Many Other Black Entertainers
After making a name for herself with her captivating performances (and reportedly taking home some major dollars for the time — $75,000 a year), Hazel started making demands. However, she wasn’t interested in petty material things, but rather, demanding that she, and her people, would be treated with respect. She refused to play in front of segregated audiences and wouldn’t wear costumes in films that she felt were stereotypical for Black folks. Hazel had final-cut privileges on films she appeared in (notably “as herself”) in order to have control over her image/appearance/ She also challenged racial discrimination in court. She actually sued the owners of a restaurant in Washington after a waitress refused to serve her and a friend because they were Black. Her action reportedly pushed the Washington state legislature to enact the Public Accommodations Act of 1953, which ended segregation in restaurants and other public places.
She Was the First Person of Color to Have a TV Show
After rising to prominence as a pianist and jazz singer, Hazel ended up becoming the first person of color to have their own TV show. The 15-minute long series ran through the summer of 1950. It was a hit with critics due to Hazel’s charming personality, and of course, her talents.
She Was Blacklisted
Unfortunately, The Hazel Scott Show would come to an end abruptly after a couple of months when Hazel’s name appeared in an anti-Communist publication during the Red Scare, accusing her of being connected to the Communist Party. She would, on her own accord, appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to clear her name. While there, though, she proudly said that she supported Communist Party member Benjamin J. Davis, who was running for City Council at the time. Despite her best efforts, her name was somewhat tarnished. Her show was canceled soon after her appearance before the HUAC and her career would take a hit.
She Was Married to Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
How Hazel and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. would come to be was a controversial story. Powell, who was running for U.S. Congress, was married at the time that he pursued the star. She was Catholic while he was Baptist. He was 12 years her senior. Still, when they linked up, they became a power couple both for Black folks as well as Whites. But after she was accused of having Communist ties, Hazel and Powell’s marriage started to fall apart. Right before their marriage ended in 1960 following busy schedules, jealousy and infidelity, she traveled to Paris with their son and linked up with American entertainers like James Baldwin, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Mary Lou Williams. She returned to the States in 1967 and continued to play small gigs in nightclubs until her death in 1981.