The Darling of Cafe Society
Sky scrapers were popping up like weeds, industry was blooming, Wall Street was bustling with opportunist and liquor was flowing in blatant disregard to Prohibition Laws. Jazz music vibrated through the grid of city streets seemingly flowing through the subway lines out of its musical mother; Harlem.
These are the sounds and sights that greeted four year old Hazel Dorothy Scott, and her mother, classically trained pianist, Alma Long Scott, when they immigrated from Port of Spain, Trinidad to Harlem, New York City in 1924. They were drawn to the city, not only for the promise of opportunity but for the vibrant music scene that could turn both their talents into a career. You see, Alma was not the only pianist in the family. Her daughter Hazel, at the age of 3, made her way to the piano in their home in Trinidad and started playing by ear songs she had been sung by her grandmother. Alma did not hesitate to bring her infant prodigy and her grandmother to the pulse of jazz music and the heartbeat of the Black Renaissance.
New York proved to be Hazel Dorothy Scott’s promise land. Although pushed into the confines of Northern Racism and the inevitable reach of sexism, with her mother’s tenacity and her undeniable musical talent she had a life of success and struggle ahead of her. At the age of 8 she auditioned for The Julliard School of Music even though 16 was the age requirement to attend. With her mother’s determination, and nudging from wealthy family friends she was given an audition and blew the Staff Professor Oscar Wagner out of the water. Wagner convinced the school to allow Scott to study under a special scholarship that also provided for her to study privately from him. From there her career took off.
At age 15 she won a contest with WOR local radio and began broadcasting her own radio show along with performing gigs at night with her mother’s all girl Jazz-band. Before she was out of her teens she had performed at the 1939 World’s Fair and become a staple at Café Society; New York’s first integrated club. It was here she made a name for herself. Being granted the nickname “The Darling of Café Society” she was renowned for her musical innovation. Her specialty was taking classical music like Chopin and Bach and adding a Jazz twist while keeping the technical integrity of the pieces. She dazzled audiences with her bare shoulders and flirty smiles. Her beauty and sexuality became characteristic of her performance style.
By 1945, at the age of 25, she was earning the equivalent of a million dollars a year and had become a regular in Hollywood circles in spite of refusing to play stereotypical roles, like that of maids, that were reserved for African American Actresses. She challenged studio’s treatment of Black Actors demanding equal pay- a request well before its time. She was also one of the first performers to contractually refuse to play before segregated audiences. She contented “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” Her defiance proved to be the downfall of her short film career. She accredited her strong opinions to being raised by her mother and grandmother; both strong independent minded women. “I’ve been brash all my life, and it’s gotten me into a lot of trouble. But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.”
It was during the height of her career in 1945 she began a romantic affair with Harlem preacher/politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. She was a talented film star and pianist while he was running for a bid in congress, securing their spot as a New York City “it” couple in both the Black and White social circles. Powell soon became the first African American from New York to be elected to national office making their August 1945 wedding a high profile, glamorous, tabloid nightmare. After their nuptials they used their collective knack for publicity to draw attention to the Civil Rights movement and challenge segregation.
On July 3, 1950, Hazel Dorothy Scott made history. At the age of 30 she became the first African American woman to host her own nationally syndicated television show on one of the pioneers of commercial television, DuMont network. She was the star, showcasing her vocal and musical talent in a short 15 minute, three time-a-week broadcast. Her success was short lived, however, when her name came out on The Red Channels: the Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.
The Red Channels was a list of people in the entertainment industry who were suspected communist or communist sympathizers. The 1950s was a time of fear for the American Government and the heat of McCarthyism. Coming out of WWII, the threat of communism and nuclear war consumed government energy in what would later be deemed The Cold War. Hazel Scott was named along with Lena Horne and dozens of other influential actors, singers, and entertainers, Black and White. She was called before The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where she was questioned about her involvement with the Communist Party. Her affiliation with Café Society in her early career, and her Civil Rights involvement made her a target. Although she denied being a member of the party her show was cancelled and bookings became fewer. Around this time her marriage to Adam Powell Jr. also disintegrated. After her divorce she took refuge with her young son in Paris.
She returned to America a decade later to a changed musical scene. She performed in smaller clubs to her devoted fan base but she never reached her former prominence. She died in October 1981 from pancreatic cancer.
Hazel Dorothy Scott’s legacy is one of defiance, transcending racial barriers, and becoming a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. She paved the way for female musicians, TV hosts and entertainers today to challenge the system and set an example for using her fame and platform to make a difference.
“Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 15, 2009.https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/hazel-scotts-lifetime-of-high-notes-145939027/
“This Piano Prodigy Was the First African American Woman to Host Her Own TV Show” Time Magazine, September 27, 2016. http://time.com/4507850/hazel-scott/