Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hazel Scott, Hot Classicist: I Dood It

The Movie
I Dood It (directed by Vincente Minelli, 1943) features displays of exceptional comedic and musical talent wrapped in a paper-thin plot involving sabotage and skulduggery during a theater production.  The movie a is remake of the Buster Keaton comedy film 'Spite Marriage' with musical numbers thrown in (a few are even recycled from earlier films).  Multiple stars are along for the ride, including Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton as the main characters with support from Lena Horne, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra, Sam Levene, John Hodiak, Butterfly McQueen, Helen O'Connell, Bob Eberly and Hazel Scott.  I was drawn to this movie by the phenomenal dance numbers of Eleanor Powell, but it was really Hazel Scott's piano and vocal performance that surprised me.  I had never heard of her and wanted to know more...

Young Hazel
Hazel Scott was born on the island of Trinidad in 1920. Her mother, Alma Long Scott, was part of a jazz band, and began to encourage Hazel's tinkering on the piano at the age of three.  She and her family moved to the city of New York in 1924 (I haven't yet figured out why).  So obvious was her talent that at a young age Hazel was given free piano lessons by a teacher at Juilliard. 

Hazel the Performer
Hazel became a public performer in her teen years on the Mutual Broadcasting System and live in clubs and theaters around New York, with at least one gig at the Roseland Ballroom with the Count Basie Orchestra.  In the 1930s and 40s she was a nightclub pianist and singer in high demand, performing classical music as well as club standards.  Labeled as the 'hot classicist' by Time magazine, her nightclub performances were described by this vibrant quote:
Hazel Scott at the Stage Door Canteen, NYC, 1942 (Life Magazine).
"But where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson. Classicists who wince at the idea of jiving Tchaikovsky feel no pain whatever as they watch her do it. She seems coolly determined to play legitimately, and for a brief while, triumphs. But gradually it becomes apparent that evil forces are struggling within her for expression. Strange notes and rhythms creep in, the melody is tortured with hints of boogie-woogie, until finally, happily, Hazel Scott surrenders to her worse nature and beats the keyboard into a rack of bones. The reverse is also true: into Tea for Two may creep a few bars of Debussy's Clair de Lune. Says wide-eyed Hazel: "I just can't help it." (Time Magazine, link below)
She was a mainstay at Cafe Society, a prominent jazz nightclub.  In 1941 and 1943, she performed at Carnegie Hall as part of the 'From Bach to Boogie-Woogie' concerts.  Possibly at the behest of her politician husband to force the issue first thrust into the limelight by Marion Anderson in 1939, in 1945 Hazel requested a performance at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall.  The request was declined by the DAR executive committee, who preferred to keep their venue for "white artists only".  President Truman and his wife were applied to to redress the injustice, but despite sending a single round of sympathetic correspondence, they did not interfere.

In the early 1940s, Hazel was also featured in the movies Rhapsody in Blue and Broadway Rhythm.  Her talents for entertainment were put to good use for the war effort, as evidenced by the photo above and this Army/Navy Screen Magazine clip below (incredible style! But be prepared for potentially offensive wartime lyrics):

In 1950, Hazel Scott became the first black woman to have a solo television show, The Hazel Scott Show, which ran for only a few months on the DuMont Television Network.

In later years, she moved to the more liberated environment of Paris, where she continued to sing on stage in clubs.  She moved back to the US in the 1970s, continuing to sing and appear on television, including landing an appearance on the soaper One Life to Live.

Personal Life
Scott and Powell on their wedding day (Life Magazine)
Various sources describe Hazel Scott as 'outspoken' and she was noted in the press as a 'favorite tabloid character'.  Prior to her first marriage, she lived in suburban White Plains, New York.  Hazel was married to Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a representative to Congress for New York's 18th district and pastor of the 10,000-strong Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, in 1945. At their wedding, a double-line of people waiting to meet the bride and groom stretched around a full city block.  Hazel had one child with Powell, a son, before the couple divorced in 1956.  Interestingly, Time magazine also lists a marriage that Scott's wikipedia page does not; this marriage to a Swiss comedian 15 years her junior took place "eight weeks after she divorced Democratic Representative Adam Clayton Powell and six weeks after Powell married his pert Puerto Rican secretary".

She was tried (but not convicted) in 1950 by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and it was speculated that this trial and her listing as a Communist in the anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels cost her her television show.  The show had been well-received by critics and had decent ratings.

Hazel Scott died of cancer in 1981. 

The Movie:

Links and Sources:,9171,872082,00.html,9171,778420,00.html,9171,792296,00.html,9171,773793,00.html
Life Magazine, 27 July, 1942.  Life's full archive here:
There is also a new biography of Scott.  I haven't read it, so can make no comments (tho' it sounds great).  Here's a link to the Amazon site:

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