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'Hello there, I'm Hazel Scott': Jazz's unsung artist-activist

If you've been on social media these past few years, you might have seen a video ofHazel Scott, without knowing it was Hazel Scott. In the clip, she sits poised between two pianos — one white, one black — the back of her spotless white gown showing off a boldly deep V-cut. She captivatingly plays those pianos simultaneously. Her fingers perform fox trots and quicksteps across the keys, showcasing just some of what made her a thrilling performer. But there is more to Scott than that one stunning display of her skills.

The Juilliard-educated child prodigy counted noted jazz icons Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus among her mentors and contemporaries. Scott featured at iconic venues like Café Society and Carnegie Hall, on the radio and Broadway stages, and commanded both top dollar and dignified roles in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s. Scott's stardom culminated in her becoming the first Black person to host a television show in 1950, setting the stage for Black hosts like Nat King Cole and Oprah Winfrey.

So why is Scott likely unfamiliar to the casual jazz fan, unlike those mentors and contemporaries? At a time when it was dangerous to simply exist as a Black woman in America, Scott audaciously fought against segregation and spoke against the Sen. Joseph McCarthy-era Red Scare of the 1950s, all to the detriment of her career. In this Jazz Night in America video, we shine a light on the artistry and activism of the pianist and singer, and the efforts to recover her legacy.

Special thanks to The Library of Congress, Washington Performing Arts, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Estate of Casper Citron, South Carolina Public Radio, WNYC Archives, The U.S. Air Force Band, Karen Chilton, and Adam Clayton Powell III.

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Mitra I. Arthur
[Copyright 2024 NPR]