Why was Hazel Scott, famous Black pianist, blacklisted by McCarthyism?


Before her dazzling career dropped out from under her, Hazel Scott blew up piano jazz and redefined what it meant to be a Black artist and a Black woman in America.

You’ve probably never heard of her because her fame as a piano virtuoso and jazz innovator was no match for the anti-Communist witch hunt that seized Congress in the 1950s, under the sway of Republican senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Scott, at the time, was a diva and a dynamo. She’d made a string of movies and hosted her own television show. She could play two pianos at once with the composure of a queen, and was known for “swinging the classics,” adding syncopation and a boogie-woogie beat to Bach and Chopin.

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But her art and her stardom were uninsurable. In 1950, after Scott was blacklisted, she lost every support system on which a musician depends — bookings, advertisers, radio spots, managers. Eventually, she faded from history.

That’s changing now, as Alicia Keys, ballet dancers, filmmakers and other artists rediscover this glamorous, singularly gifted and outspoken free spirit. At the 2019 Grammy Awards, Keys gave a shout-out to Scott after sitting between two pianos to play a bit of ragtime. Soon hits on YouTube, clips of Scott from the 1940s, soared.

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This fall, with a string of public events, Washington Performing Arts (WPA) and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) are launching their own Scott revival. A PBS American Masters documentary on Scott, titled “The Disappearance of Miss Scott,” is also in production, though the release date has not been announced.

“How is it possible that this woman was one of the most famous performers in American history, when you think of her wealth and her presence on TV and radio, and yet she’s unknown?” said Jenny Bilfield, president of Washington Performing Arts, a presenting organization.

“That was horrifying to us.”

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Scott’s disappearance is astonishing, any way you look at it. She had aced the American Dream. Born in Trinidad, she moved with her mother to New York when she was little older than a toddler. Already a piano prodigy, she shocked the prestigious Juilliard School into accepting her at age 8 by playing her own riff on Rachmaninoff. She eventually reshaped jazz with her ebullient, high-spirited touch, hands racing like white-water rapids in a blur across the keys.

She refused to play at segregated clubs. She made a handful of movies, insisting she play only herself. Not for her were the subservient roles Black women could be pushed into — and not for anyone around her, either. In “The Heat’s On,” a 1943 film starring Mae West, Scott refused to sing and play the piano in a scene where other Black women danced in dirty aprons streaked with grease and oil.

“She said, ‘I will not be part of this,’ ” said Karen Chilton, who wrote the book “Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, From Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC.” “She told them, ‘You can’t depict us this way. We’re walking off until the costumes are replaced.’ And all the women followed her lead,” Chilton said. After a three-day boycott, the aprons were swapped out for pretty dresses. Not long after, Scott’s Hollywood career was over.

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No matter — she moved to television, and in 1950 became the first Black American to host a weekly TV show built around herself, with no guest artists, just Scott and her backup band, including future jazz greats Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums.

But shortly after “The Hazel Scott Show’s” premiere, Scott was named along with 150 others in Red Channels, a publication that purported to out suspected Communists and sympathizers in radio and television. Chilton believes Scott was targeted because she performed at Cafe Society, the legendary (and integrated) New York nightclub. Many of its regulars suffered guilt by association; the owner’s brother, Chilton said, had Communist ties. Scott’s marriage to Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. also put her under scrutiny.

“One of the politicians he campaigned for was an avowed Communist member,” said Chilton. “Adam would ask her to play for a fundraiser, and Hazel was caught in the crosshairs, even though she wasn’t a member of any of that.”

Her TV show was canceled, along with everything else. Furious, Scott vowed to defend herself by volunteering to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Her husband thought this was a terrible idea. Their son, Adam Clayton Powell III, was 5 or 6 years old at the time and remembers an argument over dinner.

“My father was saying, ‘You shouldn’t do this, you can’t win against these people,’ ” Powell said in a recent interview. “She said, ‘But I’m right. I’m going to tell them they’re the ones who are un-American.’ ”

And she did. Of course, it made no difference — except to the arc of her own career. She was “invisible-ized,” said Linda Murray, curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. People of color were especially susceptible to falling through history’s cracks if they were blacklisted, she said.

“It kept them off the main stages. Their work wasn’t photographed, reviewed, documented,” Murray said. “Our history is written by what we leave behind, and we don’t have the documents to remember these artists.”

With her livelihood gone, Scott moved to Paris, where she led a smaller musical life. Yet while the American public may have forgotten her, fellow jazz musicians hadn’t.

“I’d come home from school and Lester Young might be on the couch,” said Powell. His father had stayed behind, and eventually the couple divorced. Mother and son found a new family as expatriates who opened their home to traveling colleagues.

“The entire Duke Ellington band might come to dinner in our apartment,” Powell said. “I played checkers with Quincy Jones. My two ‘aunts’ were Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, and my ‘uncle’ was Dizzy Gillespie.”

But when Scott returned to New York in the 1960s, she struggled to find work in the shadow of Miles Davis, Motown and the Beatles. She died in 1981 at age 61, unknown to most — except for her musician friends. Gillespie, Powell said, joined him at his mother’s bedside as she lay in a coma, suffering from cancer. The great trumpeter put a mute in his horn and played softly for her, and just before she died, Powell said, “she opened her eyes and smiled.”

Last week at Sidney Harman Hall in downtown Washington, WPA opened its fall season with performances by Dance Theatre of Harlem that featured a new ballet commissioned by WPA, titled “Sounds of Hazel.” It was choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher in a mix of hip-swaying Afro-Caribbean dance, swing dance and soft-edged ballet. The sound design, created by composer Erica “Twelve45” Blunt, included a couple of Scott’s piano recordings and excerpts from a searing radio interview Scott gave in 1951.

In episodic form, the ballet evoked key moments in Scott’s life: Trinidad and its calypso rhythms; the jazz scene at Cafe Society; and the elegance of Paris.

For all its color and sweep, though, the work made clear the challenge of rekindling Scott’s interpretive fire, and her warmth and ease as a musician. Scott was a performer, not a composer or a songwriter, so what remains of her work is a relatively small collection of her recordings. In this ballet, her force of personality came through most movingly in the recorded radio interview, heard in a voice-over.

“Bigots don’t belong in this country. It’s too big for them, it’s too great for them,” Scott declared in a clear, ringing voice, as a group of dancers whirled slowly, expansively, then exited the stage one by one.

“I’m so glad to be a citizen of America,” Scott continued, as one young man, shirtless and muscled, was left alone. “I would live nowhere else.” The dancer gazed defiantly into the audience before sauntering into the wings.

DTH will tour the ballet to Charleston Oct. 20-21, Seattle on Nov. 5, and, in 2023, to New York and Worcester, Mass. In the Washington area, WPA continues its Scott celebration with “A Night at Cafe Society,” Nov. 11 at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, with live performances and archival audio and video.

WPA had wanted these events to happen in 2020, Scott’s centennial year, but the coronavirus pandemic got in the way. It’s likely that this is the better moment, after 2020’s racial reckoning and the deepening of interest in Black artists. If in some ways Scott’s story is one of missed timing — she was a TV pioneer who couldn’t capitalize on TV’s rise; a star silenced as her popularity was soaring — this revival, modest as it may be for now, feels like it’s landing at the right time.

“If we don’t find ways to make this moment of time visible to the next generation,” said WPA’s Bilfield, “it will be lost.”

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