The pianist, actress and activist Hazel Scott was born on this day in 1920.
A bona fide child prodigy, Scott was raised primarily by her mother Alma, a pianist and piano teacher herself, after her father abandoned them. Alma’s choice to move the family from Port Spain (a city on Trinidad and Tobago) to Harlem in 1924 exposed her young daughter to many of the jazz luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, who were frequent visitors to the Scott household thanks to Alma’s role on the jazz scene as a saxophonist in a swing orchestra.
At just eight years old, Scott auditioned for Julliard, despite being just half the age required for admission. She received a special scholarship and private lessons with teacher Oscar Wagner thanks to her impressive audition.
Scott enjoyed a career as both a classical and jazz pianist, fusing the two in electrifying performances first in New York City, then across the country. Wherever she went, Scott mixed art with activism in a small but notable way, refusing to play unless her audience was desegregated. Besides being undoubtedly a gifted musician, Scott was a remarkable entertainer, as seen here with her mastery of two pianos at once. Musicians from Keith Emerson to Alicia Keys have since repeated the action in some way or other.
While Scott attempted a Hollywood career, her refusal to play to stereotypes and insistence on having equal pay as her white costars cut it short. Later on, her gig as host of her own television show in the 1950s–making her the first African-American woman to do so–was similarly cut short by politics of the time, this time relating to the Red Scare. After her testimony in front of House Un-American Activities Committee on September 22, 1950, her TV show was cancelled; this was despite the fact that she was in no way a sympathizer with the Communist cause, and had even chosen to appear in front of the committee voluntarily. Scott persisted despite these challenges to her career, and continued performing even after jazz fell out of style popularly, even releasing an album just two years before her death in 1981.
I leave you with this performance, and the suggestion to check her out on Spotify (link here for one album) if you want to hear some of her music.