Before Oprah, TV Audiences Cozied Up To Hazel Hazel Scott — a classically trained jazz pianist and singer — was the first African-American woman to have her own television show. But her outspoken nature may have cost Scott her rightful place in history. Karen Chilton chronicles Scott's life and career in a new book. Chilton and Scott's son, Adam Clayton Powell III, speak with Tony Cox.

Before Oprah, TV Audiences Cozied Up To Hazel

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is News and Notes. And here's a News and Notes listener favorite.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Hazel Scott Show")

(Soundbite of piano)

Ms. HAZEL SCOTT (Jazz Pianist; Singer): Hello, fellows. This is Hazel Scott. Cindy Catlan(ph) on the drums. We'd like to do a little jump number for you, C Jam Blues.

COX: Hazel Scott, a classically trained jazz pianist and singer who became the first African-American woman to have her own show, but whose outspoken nature may have cost her a rightful place in history. Well, for anyone asking who is Hazel Scott? A new book about her life has all the answers. It's called, "Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to the House Un-American Activities Committee." Karen Chilton is the author and we're also joined now by Hazel Scott's son, Adam Clayton Powell III. Welcome.

Mr. ADAM CLAYTON POWELL III (Vice Provost for Globalization, University of Southern California): Good to be with you.

Ms. KAREN CHILTON (Author, "Hazel Scott"): Thank you, Tony.

COX: This is a great project. Karen, let me talk to you first about why you did it and how long - as I understood, it took a little while to get it done.

Ms. CHILTON: Well, initially when I set out, I was interested in writing a book on black women artist ex-patriots. And that's what I was researching at the time. And I actually stumbled across Hazel Scott. I didn't know much about her. And growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was sort of raised in jazz and blues. So, I considered myself, you know, an expert on jazz. And I was actually very frustrated by the fact that I had never heard of Hazel Scott. I stumbled across her photo in a book in the New York Public Library, and I thought, well, who is she?

Then, I found another obscure out-of-print book, I think it was from the '60s, and it was a book about ex-patriots, and it was sort of a Q and A style book. And I started reading Hazel's essays, you know, the answers to the questions that were posed to her. And I was really compelled to dig a little deeper. And before I knew it, I shelved the other project and I was just fully, you know, engulfed in the Hazel Scott world. And I thought, well, surely there's a book on her. I went to the bookstore and there was nothing. And the more I learned about her, I found it really hard to believe that there had been nothing written on such a fascinating artist.

COX: Let me ask you, Adam, why that is - why is that the case?

Mr. POWELL III: I think that it may be because her - the peak of her fame as a musician, as an entertainer was in the '40s and '50s. And between having her career cut off in Hollywood in the mid '40s and then being blacklisted in the early '50s, the blacklist did work.

COX: Now, to be married to Adam Clayton Powell Junior as she was, that would make for an interesting story in and of itself, Karen. But to have the experience that she had both musically and politically particularly as it relates to the House Un-American Activities Committee, that put it on another plane all together, didn't it?

Ms. CHILTON: It certainly did. And I think that her being blacklisted, you know, it created this other whole trail of events because right after her trial, her TV show was cancelled and a lot of people don't know that she was one of the first black women to host her own television show.

COX: She was the first.

Ms. CHILTON: The first. Her show, "The Hazel Scott Show," aired in July of 1950, her trial before HUAC was September of 1950, and then was subsequently cancelled after her appearance. Then also, you know, bookings started to dry up in the States. The marriage was falling apart at that point as well. And then she became an ex-patriot in Paris.

COX: She went before HUAC of her own accord. She wasn't subpoenaed. She volunteered, wanted to go, and that seems to be the defining moment of her life because it affected the family. It affected her career. It affected everything, didn't it?

Mr. POWELL III: And I remember as a - I must have been five years old at the time, we used to - my mother and father and I used to eat dinner together. And they were having a spirited discussion, not an argument, because my father thought she was absolutely out of her mind to go before the committee. He said you can't win. No one wins by going before HUAC. And she said, but I want to go and clear my name and who are you to say that I shouldn't do something which is right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POWELL III: He was then getting into all kinds of political trouble for the Powell Amendment and other things, early civil rights legislation that he was writing.

COX: Right.

Mr. POWELL III: So, yes, it was a defining moment but a moment which was not taken lightly. And certainly, she wasn't unaware of what could happen.

COX: Now, I want to go back a little further in terms of what made her become the kind of person that she was. Knowing that she was Trinidadian and that her father was part African and she claimed a number of ethnic roots all jumbled up in there together, but there were two or three things that occurred in her lifetime that are mentioned in the book that I want you to speak to. The first one is the incident at the Spokane restaurant that turned into a lawsuit. Karen, why don't you explain to us what happened there.

Ms. CHILTON: Well, she was on tour and they were in the middle of a snowstorm, she was on a train with a friend - a personal assistant. They stopped at a diner and they were refused service. And she said, well there's no, you know, signs on the door saying, you know, colored only or white only, or any of that. And she said, well, we're almost in Canada, so why is this happening in Washington State? And then it turned into, you know, a huge argument between her and the staff, and she filed a lawsuit. After that, won the suit and donated the money - the proceeds to the NAACP.

COX: Now there's another example of this, Adam, involving a concert in Austin, Texas that she walked out of because it was segregated and she had a rule about not performing before segregated audiences.

Mr. POWELL III: I do remember the incident because she - I heard her saying that the promoters in Texas had claimed that the audience wasn't really segregated because, after all, everybody was sitting on the same level in the orchestra. And she said yes, but there's a big red carpet down in the middle. And funny thing, everybody on one side of the carpet was white, everybody on the other side of the carpet was black.

COX: Your father did not want you to know that she had been removed from this concert venue.

Ms. CHILTON: She wanted Adam to know. She said well, I think that he should know that his mother was carried out of town by the sheriffs and I think that Adam Junior, you know, his father sort of wanted to protect him from that, but she was adamant about him knowing. And perhaps that was her way of letting him know just what kinds of sacrifices she was making, you know, or her efforts in civil rights and her efforts as an artist to fight against injustice. And she even said in one of her late interviews before she passed, she said, I didn't necessarily want to be labeled an activist. I just was doing what was right. I was doing what was necessary at that time.

COX: Let me ask you as we bring this to a close, I appreciate both of you. It's fascinating material. Adam, to talk about your mother from this standpoint, how do you want her to be seen? Here's a person who spoke seven languages, she was a Julliard trained pianist, she wrote poetry, she was a beautiful woman, she was a vocalist, she was married to one of the most powerful black politicians in America at the time, and she is your mom.

Mr. POWELL III: What I remember that's perhaps most unusual looking back it's extraordinary, is that every Saturday almost without fail she would be home, and we'd spend all day Saturday playing touch football, or if it was raining going to a movie. There was one time I remember she and my father and I went to the movie theater around the corner and it was a double feature of some, you know, Abbott and Costello meets the Wolfman and Giant, now that's a double feature.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POWELL III: And they were - and we went to the movies and they'd been up all night, and they had ice bags.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That's funny. Thank you both for coming in and sharing with us the story of Hazel Scott. It's a wonderful story and people ought to know about her.

Ms. CHILTON: Thank you, Tony.

COX: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That was Karen Chilton, she is the author of "Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist from Cafe Society to Hollywood to House Un-American Activities Committee." She joined us from our NPR studios in New York. We also spoke to Hazel Scott's son, Adam Clayton Powell III. He joined me here at the studios of NPR West.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.