KAREN CHILTON is author of Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC (University of Michigan Press)
She was a genius —a Juilliard-trained pianist of dizzying talent, equally adept at jazz and classical music. But along with great talent, she believed, came great responsibility. In 1951, over Philadelphia station WFIL, Hazel Scott spoke not about Bach or boogie, but about bigotry.
At least a decade before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the former "Darling of Café Society" speaks about her own hopes of a future with "all racial prejudice eliminated."
Born in Trinidad in 1920, Scott calls herself "an American by choice." In this broadcast she carefully toes the line between cautious and candid language, a necessary balance for a black superstar living in the cold-war era of McCarthyism and lockstep beliefs.
Scott's marriage in 1945 to the crusading congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. had placed them both firmly at the center of American politics and frequent controversy. Following a historic breakthrough in television as the first African-American to host her own show, she’d been placed on McCarthy’s ‘blacklist’ and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for alleged communist activity.
Just months after this interview with Philadelphia station WFIL, Hazel Scott would be forced to leave the United States for France. She would live as an expatriate in Paris for the next decade. And yet, she remained vigilant: “I think America is as big and as strong as its weakest point…it is up to a Negro to be the conscience of this great land of ours.”