Thursday, February 5, 2015

John Malveaux: Pianist Hazel Scott [1920-1981] was a child prodigy and devotee of classical and jazz music

Hazel Scott [1920-1981] captivated audiences with her renditions of classical masterpieces by Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff. (Associated Press) (

John Malveaux of 

Pianist Hazel Scott was a child prodigy and devotee of classical and jazz music.
John Malveaux

Smithsonian Magazine
Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes
She began her career as a musical prodigy and ended up breaking down racial barriers in the recording and film industries
She was called the “Darling of Café Society” back in 1939 when New York City was alive with the sounds of swing. A sexy siren sitting bare-shouldered at the piano, Hazel Scott captivated audiences with her renditions of classical masterpieces by Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff. Nightly, crowds would gather at Café Society, New York’s first fully integrated nightclub, the epicenter of jazz and politics nestled in Greenwich Village, to hear the nineteen-year-old bronze beauty transform “Valse in D-Flat Major”, “Two Part Invention in A-Minor,” and “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” into highly syncopated sensations. “But where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson,” wrote TIME magazine. “Strange notes 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.”
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad on June 11, 1920, Hazel Dorothy Scott was the only child of R. Thomas Scott, a West African scholar from Liverpool, England and Alma Long Scott, a classically-trained pianist and music teacher. A precocious child who discovered the piano at the age of 3, Hazel surprised everyone with her ability to play by ear. When she would scream with displeasure after one of Alma’s students hit a wrong note, no one in the household recognized the sensitive ear she possessed. “They had been amused, but no one regarded my urge as latent talent,” she recalled. Until one day, young Hazel made her way to the piano and began tapping out the church hymn, “Gentle Jesus”, a tune her grandmother Margaret sang to her daily at nap time. From that moment on, Alma shifted her focus from her own dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and dedicated herself to cultivating her daughter’s natural gift. They were a tight knit pair, sharing an extremely close bond throughout their lives. “She was the single biggest influence in my life,” Hazel said. Her father, on the other hand, would soon leave the family and have a very small presence in his daughter’s life.

Following the breakup of the Scott’s marriage, the three of them—mother, daughter and grandmother—would migrate to the States in search of greater opportunity for themselves and the gifted young pianist. In 1924, they headed to New York and landed in Harlem, where Alma took a job as a domestic maid. 
She struggled, however, and returned to what she knew best—music. She taught herself the saxophone, and eventually joined Lil Hardin Armstrong’s orchestra in the early 1930s. Alma’s associations with well-known musicians made the Scott household “a mecca for musicians,” according to Hazel, who benefited from the guidance and tutelage of jazz greats Art Tatum, Lester Young and Fats Waller, all of whom she considered to be like family.

In 1928, Hazel auditioned for enrollment in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. She was only eight-years-old, and too young for standard enrollment (students had to be at least 16), but because of some influential nudging by wealthy family friends and Alma’s sheer determination, Hazel was given a chance. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” made a strong impression on staff professor Oscar Wagner. He proclaimed the child “a genius,” and with the permission of the school’s director, Walter Damrosch, offered her a special scholarship where he would teach her privately
Career progress was swift. A spirited young woman with an outward demeanor that was effervescent and engaging, Hazel’s life was not that of an ordinary teenager. While still in high school, Hazel hosted her own radio show on WOR after winning a local competition, and performed gigs at night. At times, she felt burdened by the demands of her talent, admitting, “There were times when I thought that I just couldn't go on.” Still, she managed to graduate with honors from Wadleigh High. Not long after, she made her Broadway debut in the musical revue Sing Out the News. Commercial recordings of her ”Bach to Boogie” repertoire on the Signature and Decca labels would break sales records nationwide.

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