Saturday, February 04, 2006

Hooray for Hazel!

In the 1940s, singer-pianist Hazel Scott was nearly as famous as Lena Horne. But today she's chiefly remembered as the onetime wife of the charismatic but controversial congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Like Horne, Scott was a cool, sophisticated performer, and on the silver screen she was a distant and non-threatening black sex symbol. Off screen, it was another matter.

Working in the 1940s and early '50s mostly without the safety net of any civil rights organization, Scott lashed out against the U.S. racial situation nearly every chance she had. Making her actions doubly daring was her gender, for as Scott remarked years later: "Any woman who has a great deal to offer is in trouble, and if the woman is black, she is in deep trouble."

There are plenty of women -- and plenty of black women -- who might say the same thing today. And that makes a look back at Scott's life all the more worthwhile.

Scott was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1920. Her mother, Alma, bore five children, but only Hazel lived past infancy. Scott's father, Thomas R. Scott, was a teacher and scholar, who, among his other accomplishments, could speak 17 different Chinese dialects. Originally from Scotland and of African ancestry, he had come to Trinidad to teach at St. Mary's College. Alma Scott, a debutante and a talented pianist, was from an upper-class island family.

"I remember the instant I realized I could play," Hazel Scott recalled years later.

"I was two-and-a-half. My grandmother finally got tired and fell asleep. I managed to climb on the piano bench and start picking out a tune with one hand. I kept doing it until it came more easily. Then my grandmother woke up and asked, `Who's there?' She thought it was one of the students who had come. I said, `It's me.' And she said, `Yes, but who?' I said, `Me, Hazel.' She jumped up and called in the neighbors to hear the prodigy."

Hazel, it turned out, had perfect pitch. She started studying music with her mother and shortly thereafter began appearing publicly in Port-of-Spain. When Hazel was four, the Scotts left Trinidad for New York. On the boat trip, while her mother was laid up in her cabin suffering from sea sickness, Hazel, unfazed, spent most of the voyage performing at the piano for the other passengers.

The family's first home in New York was a brownstone in Harlem on 118th Street. Two years after arriving in the city, Hazel gave a classical performance at Town Hall (her jazz playing was still a few years away). At age 8, she was allowed to begin studying at Julliard on an informal basis after one of the teachers there heard her play and pronounced her a genius.

In 1934, Scott's father died from pneumonia, and her mother, who would have preferred a career as a classical pianist but suffered from weak wrists, turned to pop music as a means of supporting the family. Quickly learning the saxophone, she got a job playing in the band of Louis Armstrong's second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong. To Scott's surprise, one night when they were backing the acts at the Apollo Theatre's boisterous amateur night in Harlem, 14-year-old Hazel, who was thought to be at home asleep, came out on the stage to compete. The same year she was heard at Carnegie Hall performing Tchaikovsky's "Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra."

"I was a prodigy," Scott said years later, "but nobody expected anything to come of it. No matter how good I was, it wasn't going to happen." At the time, the idea of blacks playing classical music was still considered a tasteless and pretentious notion by most whites.

But as a teenager Hazel had her mind set on becoming a music professional. "I cannot stay home with people who aren't in the business," she told her mother. "If you won't let me play in your orchestra, I'll become a juvenile delinquent." Thus at age 12 she began touring with her mother's American Creolians; she also formed her own band, 14 Men and a Girl.

When she was 15, Scott and her musicians were working at a bar in Port Chester, N.Y., when, according to a story in Time magazine a few years later, the musician's union tried to have Scott fired for being under age. "I am over eighteen!" Hazel lied to the union. "And I'll outplay, outswing and outsing anybody who says different." This brand of fierceness would serve Scott well in years to come.

In 1936 Scott had her own three-times-a-week radio show on the Mutual network, which chose her for the slot from among 1,500 hopefuls. The same year, at Roseland, she made her first major downtown appearance on a bill headlined by Count Basie. In 1938, at age 18, Scott made her theatrical debut in the Broadway revue, "Sing Out the News." Even though she was only a part of the ensemble that sang the show's hit, "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones," her appearance was favorably singled out in several reviews.

It was around this time that Scott also began refining the unique piano style with which she made her mark -- swinging the classics. Hired as an intermission player in support of star Frances Faye at New York's popular Yacht Club, Hazel soon began receiving notes on stage via the busboy that she was no longer to perform the song that she had just sung because Faye was using it in her act. "Well, let's see if Frances Faye can do this!," she grumbled and tore into a Bach invention played boogie-woogie style.

"Needless to say," she later recalled, "Miss Faye didn't do THAT in her show, so I was able to get through a complete show without being interrupted by the busboy." Scott was by no means the inventor of the gimmick, but at the Yacht Club she sensed immediately that she had stumbled onto a good thing, mined it for all it was worth, and soon was one of the hottest club attractions in town. In his "Brown Sugar," author Donald Bogle describes Hazel's act during this period:

"She began her classical numbers in a conventional way, gradually changed the rhythm, letting the boogie-woogie notes creep in until, finally, Hazel Scott gave in to the sounds within her and pounded the keyboard as if each minute might be her last." (Scott also sang occasionally, but to only marginally interesting results.)

A Carnegie Hall appearance in 1945, when she swingingly deconstructed Lizst's "Second Hungarian Rhapsody" was typical, and at least one reviewer was ecstatic: Scott's performance, he wrote (with tongue tucked firmly in cheek) constituted a form of musical analysis. The evening was, he said, "the most impudent musical criticism since George Bernard Show stopped writing on the subject. It was witty, daring, modern, but never irreverent. I think Lizst would have been delighted." One of the writer's colleagues from another paper felt very differently about Scott, however; he stomped out in the middle of her performance and later in print deemed it akin to sacrilege.

Scott first became familiar with jazz due to the steady stream of musicians who frequented Alma Scott's Harlem apartment. Art Tatum was an early friend of Hazel's, tutoring her extensively at the keyboard. Lester Young would also often stop by to pay his respects to Hazel's mother, and usually end up taking out his sax and instigating a jam session. Fats Waller was like a beloved uncle to her. And then, there was Billie Holiday. "I would put a nickel in the local jukebox and hear Lady Day sing," Scott told Essence magazine in 1978, "and then come home and find her sitting in the kitchen with my mother."

One night a 15-year-old Scott sneaked out of her apartment to play with a swing band on New York's jumping 52nd Street. In the middle of the action, she suddenly heard what she later described as a "scream that was absolutely primeval." It was the sound of a dutiful and angry Billie Holiday accidentally encountering the underage Hazel in what she considered less than ideal circumstances. She chased her off the stage and out of the place. It was this protective attitude that led Scott to forever think of Holiday as a big sister.

Scott's more-or-less "discoverer," Barney Josephson, was the owner of two New York night clubs, Cafe Society Uptown and Downtown, famous not only for the superb and eclectic mix of performers who could be heard there, but also for their progressive policy of total racial integration. "We believe in democracy," he once said, "and are willing to practice it even if it hurts our business." "Despite the potentially explosive mix of customers," writes James Gavin in Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, Josephson created an atmosphere of tolerance; white customers who complained – `What have you got here, a nigger joint?' -- received a check and were asked to leave."

The first audition of Scott by the club owner resulted in a legendary amalgamation of talent and locale, much like that of Bobby Short and the Cafe Carlyle of more recent times. Josephson told her, "You have a home here for life," and she soon became the reigning queen of his little empire. Primarily appearing at the uptown operation, when she began in 1938, Scott earned $65 a week; seven years later she was pulling down $2000 weekly. At this point Scott was being offered even far greater sums to switch alliances but refused.

"Why should I work for any other night club in town? I'd be a jerk."

Later, describing the spell Hazel cast over the intimate night spot, Scott's eventual husband, New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., wrote: "Cafe Society was then THE supper club of New York and Hazel Scott was its grande vedette. No one came to challenge her in her domain. There was nothing like Cafe Society and there has been nothing like it since. Way at the end of the long room was the black concert grand piano sticking its nose up out of the audience. All the lights would go out, Hazel would make her way to the piano and then suddenly a spotlight would catch her. For a moment the audience would gasp, because it looked as it she were seated there nude -- the height of the piano, the bare-shouldered dress, nothing but the golden-brown shoulder and arms, super talented fingers."

The early years of World War II found Hazel Scott's career talking off with a velocity rare for an African-American. One New York department store alone reported that it had sold 3,000 copies of her "Swinging the Classics" album in just two weeks. In addition to features about her in Time ("Hot Classicist") and Newsweek ("Hep Hazel"), she was the subject of an in-depth profile in the popular Collier's magazine in which she announced she would be co-starring with Louis Armstrong in an upcoming Orson Welles project, "It's All True." As to exactly when the project might commence shooting was problematic: "He's [Welles] such a vague character," Hazel told Collier's.

It wasn't vagueness, though, that finally did the venture in: RKO Pictures was automatically expecting a light, frothy jazz musical from Welles; but what they were getting, they soon realized based on early footage sent back from Brazil, was a film about the plight of the black laboring class south of the border and the universality of African culture. Needless to say, the plug was soon pulled by frontoffice Hollywood on an aborted project that has since become legend.

Shortly thereafter came a film opportunity for Scott that seemed to represent a step down from starring for the Magnificent Orson -- a bit part in the new, not-quite-"A" musical, "Something to Shout About," to be directed by near-hack, Gregory Ratoff. In fact, so minimal was her participation, Hazel didn't even need to be flown to Hollywood; instead, she was filmed in New York. But when Columbia Pictures executives saw the footage of Scott who, by comparison, made "most sweater girls look underfed" -- Broadway columnist Earl Wilson once wrote -- they were so impressed that they singer her to a four-picture deal. Hazel was put on a plane for California to shoot her how beefed-up part in "Something to Shout About."

There is little doubt that what the studio had in mind for 20-year- old Hazel Scott -- a first rank night club and concert hall attraction and now about to make her film debut in a movie with a Cole Porter score -- was their own version of competing MGM's "exotic" black star Lena Horne. As such, she would be glamorously clad and used primarily in big musical production numbers which Columbia could conveniently snip out in the south or wherever else scenes featuring blacks might bring offense (a standardized practice in the motion picture industry at the time). Scott later admitted that she was troubled by lending a hand to such racist schemes, but with just about the only dramatic roles available to her as a black woman being domestics or quasi-prostitutes, in a rare occasion of compromise for her, she chose to take the route of the musical. After wrapping up work on "Something to Shout About," which went without a hitch, Scott was loaned out to MGM for two more similar all-musical inserts; one of which "I Dood It," featured not only Scott but Lena Horne as well. Then Scott returned to Columbia for "The Heat's On" and, she assumed, more gowns, glitz, and glamour lighting.

The film, made at the height of World War II, like many other musicals of the period, was to contain the perfunctory production number featuring women singing, dancing and rallying their men onward into battle. Then Scott found out how females in the all-black ensemble were to be depicted."My costume was fitted, and the guys were all fitted, too; then they started bringing the costumes for the girls. They were wearing aprons, and [choreographer] David Lichine said they looked too new. He told the make-up men to spray them with oil and I blew sky-high. I honestly did. I said `I don't understand you. How can you think that young women are going to see their sweethearts off to war wearing dirty aprons?'"

The racist implications seemed perfectly clear to Hazel; black women had so little pride or self-esteem that they didn't care what they were wearing when sending their loved ones into battle. She refused to do the number unless the costumes were cleaned up. Such non-self serving behavior as Scott's was as unheard of in Hollywood then as it is now and studio officials were puzzled. After all, Scott in a WAC outfit, wasn't called to wear one of the maid outfits herself. Before it was all over, production on "The Heat's On" number was held up for three days and several thousand dollars were lost. "So," she later crowed to jazz drummer-author Art Taylor in his "Notes and Tones," "I hit the man where it hurts most -- in his pocketbook." Hazel finally got her way (she usually did); but in the long run she suffered consequences far more severe than those she'd levied on Columbia. In retaliation, notoriously vindictive studio chief Cohn effectively blackballed her from films.

But the powerful Cohn's influence only reached so far. Fifteen years later she was able to secure a role in a film in France. It was "Le Disordre de la Nuit" ("Night Affair") starring Jean Gabin and Danielle Darrieux. An underworld melodrama, typical of the vehicles Gabin was turning out at that time, the film gave Scott some brief acting chores, but chiefly used her in a nightclub scene, singing and playing the piano. The French, it appears, were no better at utilizing her talents than the Americans.Scott reported one interesting sidelight to the shooting, however:

"I came home from the studio and picked up the Herald-Tribune from my door. When I looked at the paper, I started shaking all over. I had just finished my first day of shooting and Harry Cohn has said I'd never make another picture as long as he lived. I read in the paper that he'd dropped dead the previous night. Isn't that strange? You see why I don't fool with God."

"What Congressman has been stage-door johnnying with what boogie- woogie pianist? And don't think his wife doesn't know," read a wildly transparent "blind" item in the November 1944 issue of Ebony magazine. Everyone knew to whom the squib referred; the pair was undoubtedly Hazel Scott and charismatic black politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Although married, Powell had a reckless playboy image totally out of keeping with his dual roles as a congressman and pastor of the largest Christian congregation in North America, Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church (Powell had inherited the pastorship from his father).

By the time "Mr. Jesus," as Powell was known to his congregation, met and rapidly fell in love with Hazel, he was one of the most well- known blacks in the country. Powell later claimed that by then his first marriage had hit the skids because of his wife's failure to grow along with him.A little more than a month after Powell's quickie divorce from his first wife, Isabel, he and Scott were married in Connecticut on Aug. 1, 1945. This was followed by a reception later in the day at Cafe Society Uptown where 3,000 guests showed up, only a third of them invited. In the mirror world of black society, the union was considered a "storybook marriage," somewhat along the lines of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks of a slightly earlier era. Life magazine printed a two-page spread about the wedding and reception, showing a radiant-looking Powell and Scott, who called him a "rabble rousing champion of Negro rights."Almost from the beginning of her career, Scott had written into all of her contracts an anti-segregation clause (she was one of the first black performers to make such demands). The proviso stated that promoters would be legally obligated to forfeit half of her minimum guarantee and she not be expected to perform if she arrived for a performance to discover that the audience was racially segregated. "What justification can anyone have who comes to hear me and then objects to sitting next to another Negro?," Scott, defending her position, reasoned. She also refused to perform in any town where unsegregated hotel facilities weren't available: "If I'm not good enough to stay in a hotel in certain town, I figure those people arenot good enough to hear me play."

Still, there were slip-ups: In 1946 Scott arrived for a performance at the University of Texas and, looking around the auditorium, spotted a bright red carpet running down the middle of the 7,500-seat hall. Immediately sensing that it was nothing more than a tonier version of the notorious rope, which had been used for many years to separate black audiences from white in the South, she refused to perform and dared the university to sue her. The school declined. Later that same year there was a widely publicized incident in which Scott and a friend were both denied service at a restaurant in the eastern Washington city of Pasco. She later incredulously remarked, "If we'd been any farther north we'd have been in Canada!"

If the press was to be believed, the first few years of the Scott- Powell marriage were idyllic. The press also continued to carry news of the couple's continuing political activism, such as their successful attempt to bring about the integration of Veterans Administration hospitals.

The incident that triggered Scott's eventual listing in the notorious right-wing smear sheet Red Channels, which printed names of artists and performers suspected of being Communist fellow travelers, was her performance at a 1943 rally for Benjamin Davis, an avowed Communist who was running for New York City Council. Another such benefit performance, she later recalled in Essence magazine, "was for Russian War Relief at Madison Square Garden. Everyone did it. My manager booked me. Who are they kidding? Russia was our ally at the time."

In 1950 after her name was placed in Red Channels, Scott defended herself before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Unlike most witnesses who appeared before HUAC, Scott was not subpoenaed to appear. She requested to testify.

Before taking the stand, she was addressed directly by Congressman Woods of Georgia, who was also a Ku Klux Klan member. When he said, "We have agreed to hear you because you are the wife of a colleague [Powell]," Scott's reply sent shock waves through the room: "Well, what about the 400 others [i.e. names appearing in Red Channels] who are not?"

Scott went on to rail out against "Channels," deeming it a "vile and un-American act," and to lambaste HUAC itself as being "un-American." Strong, courageous words long before newsman Edward R. Murrow's historic tide-turning anti-HUAC TV editorial in 1954. Shortly after her HUAC appearance, she proposed that musicians and performers boycott all radio and TV networks suspending those listed in Red Channels.

At the time, Scott was earning $100,000 annually for about five months of work a year. But overall public sentiment against her, which had been building for some time because of her politics, reached critical mass with her HUAC appearance. Shortly afterward, her TV show on the Dumont network -- one of the first such ventures for a black on national TV -- was yanked off the air.

By the mid-1950s much of the luster of Scott's career began to dim; and her marriage was similarly in decline. In 1956 she and Powell legally separated, then divorced.

But the end of her marriage also marked a beginning for Scott: She went to Paris for three weeks to rest and play an engagement. Powell, with whom she was still on friendly terms, advised her: "If you're not happy here [in the U.S.] why don't you stay over there for a little while and work.""A little while" would end up lasting more than three years.

When Scott finally returned to the U.S. in 1960, it was to a country where the increasingly prevalent attitude among young, militant blacks was to publicly attack certain entertainment figures for their failure to take an active in-your-face part in the rapidly escalating attack on the racial status quo. Scott did not escape this.

"Since my return to America," she wrote in Ebony in 1960, "I have been attacked by some misinformed people who say I have been away from the problem. In one New York hotel where I was staying the room service waiter said, `I once thought you were the greatest, but you have fallen in my estimation because you left America where the fight is.'" She tended to slough off such attacks, remarking that racism was worldwide.

Scott's return to America didn't last much longer than it took for her to gauge the political and occupational climate and then leave once more. By the end of the year she was again in Paris where the colony of American jazz musicians living there, and visiting artists, actors and musicians, were glad to have her back.

"I'd have a dozen musicians maybe out of the Ellington band in the living room," she told jazz critic Leonard Feather, who in 1937 had produced her first recordings. "You'd go in the next room and there stretched out on a couch because he hurt his back at the studio that day is Anthony Quinn. You keep going and there in the kitchen is Quincy Jones testing what I have in the pot."

It was during this second stay in Paris that Scott could also be seen one morning -- on the same day as the event in the U.S. -- leading a band of disparate artists, including James Baldwin, Richard Avedon and Anthony Quinn, from the American Church to the door of the U.S. Embassy to deliver a petition in support of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 march on Washington, D.C.Coming back to the United States in 1966 (this time for good), Scott began more forcefully to defend herself against the kind of attacks first leveled against her a few years earlier."People would say to me," she later told drummer Art Taylor in his book, "Notes and Tones," "`You went away from the fight' and I'd say, `Come on, you're looking for a fat lip! While you were sitting very comfortable in your Jim Crow quarters or your all-white quarters or in the North in Harlem or on the South Side of Chicago, I was down South desegregating audiences in town after town getting one jumpahead of the sheriff. So don't be telling me I ran away from the fight.'"

Scott came home because of her son, then living in the U.S. alone due to Powell's flight from the country to escape legal problems. She sought out dramatic roles in TV and films, but after landing only a handful of parts on shows such as "Julia" and "The Bold Ones," Scott refocused her energies on music. The jobs she was able to land, however, were a far cry from her Cafe Society glory years. Many of the dates were at Holiday Inns along the West Coast where, instead of typically staring the audience down to achieve silence, she made no attempt at all to quash the inevitable chattering patrons who were paying little or no attention.

By the fall of 1981, Scott knew for several months that she was dying of cancer, but continued performing for her small but devoted New York following at the Milford Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. By now she had almost totally abandoned the gimmicky boogie/Bach style that had first brought public attention and was concentrating on playing straight-ahead jazz of the kind she had recorded with Max Roach and Charlie Mingus on her 1955 album, "Relaxed Piano Moods."

During the era of World War II, Hazel Scott was a household name to most of the nation's blacks and to a large part of sophisticated white America. She was also among the first entertainers of any race to combine political activism with professional undertakings as a performer. By the 1960s, thanks in no small part to a war waged against her by Communist witch hunters, Scott, who had accomplished so much in the area of civil rights throughout her career, had disappeared from public consciousness almost without blip. She died in New York City at age 61 on Oct. 2, 1981.

Hear Hazel Scott

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