At the 2019 Grammys, while Alicia Keys was showing off her fire piano playing skills while playing two pianos, she shouted out the artist Hazel Scott.
“I’ve been [thinking] so much about the people and the music that have inspired me,” Keys said, moving between the two instruments. “I want to give a shouted out to Hazel Scott, because I always wanted to play two pianos.”
Hazel Scott, a jazz performer, was indeed a seriously incredible pianist, showing off that signature double piano playing in a scene in the 1943 film The Heat’s On. But she also had a crazy, boundary-breaking career in the entertainment industry, one cut too short after being accused of being a communist.
Born in Trinidad, Scott moved to the U.S. in the 1920s where she began playing the piano at just 4 years old, growing up to be a full-blown piano prodigy. The auditions director of Juilliard once said he was “in the presence of a genius” after watching a then only 8-year-old Scott play for him. She was schooled in classical music, but had an affinity for jazz, coming up in the Harlem Renaissance to the sounds of piano players Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Her New York Times obituary published in 1981 reads:
In December 1940, when Miss Scott made her piano debut at Carnegie Hall, she began by playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in a conventional style. Then, to the relief of her fans, she switched the tempo to her own modern-jazz interpretation. ‘’It was witty, daring, modern, but never irreverent,’’ wrote a critic reviewing the performance. ‘’Liszt would have been delighted.’’
Scott performed on Broadway and had her own radio series. Eventually she made it to Hollywood but was confronted with the deep racism of the industry. She reportedly went on strike after the producers of The Heat’s On wanted to dress her in dirty aprons for a dance number and she insisted that she be credited in productions under her name as “Hazel Scott as Herself.” “I’ve been brash all my life, and it’s gotten me into a lot of trouble,” she said of pushing against the Hollywood system. “But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life.” In her piece “This Black Woman Was Once the Biggest Star in Jazz. Here’s Why You’ve Never Heard of Her,” writer Lorissa Rinehart writes:
Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.
Scott would also become the first black woman to ever host her own TV show The Hazel Scott Show in 1950, showcasing musical talent over 15 minutes, three times a week. But her performing career was cut short when she was suspected of being a Communist and like so many other stars at the time the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) went after her. Scott chose to appear voluntarily in front of the committee, where she said:
Now that you gentleman have heard me so patiently, may I end with one request—and that is that your committee protect those Americans who have honestly, wholesomely, and unselfishly tried to perfect this country and make the guarantees in our Constitution live. The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help, to serve. Our country needs us more today than ever before. We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men...
The Hazel Scott Show was canceled after the hearing and she eventually moved to Paris to play and perform sporadically. After moving back to the U.S., she died of pancreatic cancer in 1981. But for a brief moment during the Grammys, Scott’s musical talents lived on in the form of one incredible double-piano performance.