At one time, she had it all. A brilliant pianist and singer, she was a star of Broadway and Hollywood. She was the toast of New York’s theaters and jazz clubs. Thirty years before Oprah, she was the first African-American woman to have her own TV show. She was glamorous, talented, and loved. She made one of the most famous Yiddish novelty songs a hit, all by herself.
And then, she slid into oblivion, disappeared. At one time more famous than Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole, today she is completely forgotten.
Who was Hazel Scott, and what happened to her?
Born in Trinidad on June 11, 1920, Scott displayed early talent for the piano. When she was 4, her family moved to Harlem. Her mother, also a pianist, recognized that Scott was special, and brought her to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music when she was only 8 years old. Although the normal age of admission was 16, one of the professors took her on as a private student. To pay for Scott’s education, her mother formed an “all-girl” orchestra. Scott joined the group when she was 17; in addition to her talent on the piano, she was also a very fine singer.
At the age of 19, Scott’s big break came. She replaced Billie Holiday at Cafe Society, a nightclub owned by Jewish showman Barney Josephson. Cafe Society was the only integrated venue in New York at the time, and Scott was a big hit. Among her biggest fans were Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra.
During that time, a Jewish songwriter named Adolf King wrote a song in Yiddish called, “Ich Vill Zich Spielen,” which means, “I Want to Play.” It was an up-tempo, happy song, and it had just enough naughtiness to it to be called, in that era, a “novelty” song. He gave it to Scott, and she made it a hit. King added an English verse, but it was Scott belting it out in flawless Yiddish that brought the house down at the famous Roxy Theatre, where she reigned supreme. (She recorded it commercially, and that original 78 is a treasured part of my personal collection.)
Soon Hollywood called, and Scott appeared in several films. She was great in her appearances, but she soon found herself at odds with the studio executives. In an era when film roles for African-American women were very limited, she demanded total control of her appearances. She refused to play maids, and had total control over her songs and clothing. When the director demanded that she wear stereotypical, and what she considered degrading, clothing, she walked off the picture and went on strike. After several days, the director relented, but the word of the strike and the cost to the studio reached Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn. He vowed that she would never work in Hollywood again. And she never did.
Returning to New York, she fell in love with and married the flamboyant congressman Adam Clayton Powell in 1945. They were what we call today a “power couple,” and certainly were the most famous African-American couple in America at the time. In 1950, a new medium called to Scott. Television was in its infancy, and the fledgling DuMont network hired her as the star of her own show. She continued to perform in concerts and record, and was doing very well.
And then, the bottom dropped out. Active at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, Scott was accused of being a Communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era. She was ordered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not only did she deny any such involvement, but she also she used the opportunity to rail against the entire committee in a scathing address.
The retribution was swift and severe. Her TV show was cancelled. Her concert bookings dried up, and her marriage fell apart.
To try to resurrect her career, Scott moved to Paris, where she enjoyed modest success. Always close with the Jewish community, she visited Israel in 1962. In 1967, she returned to America to be close to her son and his family. But the music scene had changed beyond recognition. Rock and roll was king, and the type of music that she made famous had disappeared.
She passed away on Oct. 2, 1981 at the age of only 61. But lovers of Yiddish music will always remember her and “Ich Vill Zich Spielen,” and the great talent of Hazel Scott.
NEXT TIME: The Jewish Record Industry Goes to War: A Yom Ha’atzmaut Story
By Larry Shor