Jazz pianist and vocalist Hazel Scott was one bad woman. That’s about as simple of a phrase as I can think of when it comes to describing the unparalleled talent and career of the late jazz extraordinaire. I recently read her biography Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC by Karen Chilton and was amazed to find out how much she contributed to jazz music.
She was a musical prodigy and earned a scholarship to Julliard as a teenager. She studied with renowned classical music instructors and was the first African American to host her own network television show. She was also very engaged in the struggle for racial equality.
Scott set new heights in the jazz field and made it possible for current female jazz artists like Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lynn Carrington, and others to reach stardom in the musical arena.
While there is no valid excuse as to why Scott is not more recognized more within music history, it is great to see that her story has finally been documented and people can learn more about Scott’s musical and social impact.
Actor and writer Karen Chilton’s critically-acclaimed biography of Scott really captured the essence of the jazz pianist and just how important of a role she played in jazz music.
Roots, Rhythm, and Rhyme got the opportunity to speak with Chilton about her experience writing Scott’s biography.
Check out the Q&A below:
V: How did you first hear about Hazel Scott and what made you want to want to write a book about her?
Karen Chilton: Initially, I was interested in doing a book about black women expatriates. It was during that research process that I stumbled upon Hazel Scott. I had always been an avid jazz fan. Growing up in Chicago, I was surrounded by jazz and blues and developed a great love for the music at an early age. I knew all of the major jazz players of the 20s, 30s, 40s and so on, but I had never heard of Hazel Scott. I discovered her in “Notes & Tones,” a book written by jazz drummer Art Taylor. Once I read Hazel Scott’s interview about her experience living in Paris, she captured my imagination. I went looking for more information on her, thinking, surely a woman this dynamic had to have a memoir somewhere in the archives. There wasn’t one, so I spent the next seven years researching/writing her life story.
V: What surprised you the most about Hazel Scott when doing research about her life?
KC: The most surprising, I suppose, is that she isn’t as well-known as so many of her peers. Her legacy had become lost in history. Given all that she accomplished, (attending Julliard at 8 yrs. old, hosting her own NY radio show at 14, appearing on Broadway at 18 and being the first African-American to host her own network television in 1950, etc.), it is pretty astounding that so few Americans recognize her name or know her music.
During the peak years of her career, Hazel Scott was the highest paid entertainer in the industry. She was covered in the national press with regularity. And she and Adam C. Powell, Jr. were the most high-profile Black couple in America in the 1940s and 50s. Many of the reasons why she has been so overlooked and under-documented I explore in the book, though I don’t think there is just one answer as to the reason why. Still, it is the one question I am asked repeatedly.
V: Being a woman in jazz is no easy feat, and it was especially difficult during the 1940s and 50s when you rarely saw female musicians within the spotlight unless they were vocalists. In addition to her musical talent, what are some qualities that you think Scott possessed that allowed her to attain the level of success that she did?
KC: She was keenly aware of her personal gifts. Meaning, she didn’t make any apologies for being talented and smart and beautiful and curious and brave. She was comfortable in her own skin, which helped her deal with her critics. She held herself to very high standards and worked extremely hard to deliver first rate performances to her fans. As she said, she could “move an audience to their feet.” That kind of confidence went a long way in sustaining her through the most challenging periods of her professional career.
V: From reading the book, I learned that Scott was not just a talented musician and actress, but she was also a strong civil rights advocate. Do you think Scott would have gained more success and prominence on the level of artists like Billie Holiday had she chosen not to attach herself to such controversial issues? If so, why?
KC: Like so many other artists of her generation, Hazel Scott believed that activism was a responsibility, a duty; it came with the territory of being Black and having some modicum of fame. There were far too many Black Americans suffering from the social ills of poverty, racial discrimination, Jim Crow segregation, etc. for them to NOT to use their voices to help uplift the race. She often said in interviews that she did not consider herself an activist. It wasn’t a label she gave herself. She was a citizen of the world and felt compelled to speak out against injustice at every turn. Nevertheless, she did believe that her self-described “brashness” probably cost her in the end.
V: What was the most rewarding part of writing this book?
KC: Hazel Scott herself was the reward. She is a fascinating subject, a hidden treasure. All of the years of research and writing were a joy. And it has been a real privilege to share her amazing life story with readers all over the world; to unearth her legacy and in some small way, let the biography be a living testament to her artistic contribution. It is always thrilling to witness the enthusiasm of those who have discovered her for the first time, and the pride of the elders who loved and remembered her come up to me and say: “Thank you for this book. She was truly great.”
V: You have written extensively about other female musicians such as Gloria Lynne and Bessie Smith. How did you become interested in writing about female musicians, particularly those in jazz?
KC: I didn’t set out to do this work. As an actor and a writer, my energies have always been more focused on theater and film, not nonfiction, and certainly not biographies. But life often has its own plans. The fact that I’ve written about these women is as much a surprise to me as anyone. As a writer, you’re always in search of interesting subject matters—sometimes you seek it out, sometimes it seeks you.
V: Who are some other female musicians who you would like to write about in the future?
KC: I’m presently working on works for the stage, so perhaps some jazz women will find their way into my dramatic works. It’s hard to say. I’m afraid I’m not a writer who plans far in advance. I tend to remain open and when an idea hits me, I trust it and follow it. So, stay tuned.