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Music: Hot Classicist

4 minute read

Two shapely brown shoulders and a round, roguish face, framed in a triangle of white light, showed above the grand piano’s shining ebony. From the keyboard Chopin’s Minute Waltz flowed fleetly, ripplingly. For a while it surged along according to Chopin. Then watchers saw an impish flicker of a smile, an insinuating movement of a shoulder. Came the first suggestion of a hot lick; another, and another. Then Hazel Scott began to “break it down,” and was off in a wild mélange of pianistics, sweet, hot, Beethoven and Count Basic.

Her fans had known all along what was coming. Hazel Scott, star Negro entertainer of Manhattan’s Cafe Society Uptown, was doing what she does best, the thing that has lifted her into showdom’s top rank and made her this season’s Manhattan sensation: swinging the classics.

But where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson. Classicists who wince at the idea of jiving Tchaikovsky feel no pain whatever as they watch her do it. She seems coolly determined to play legitimately, and for a brief while, triumphs. But gradually it becomes apparent that evil forces are struggling within her for expression. Strange notes and rhythms 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. The reverse is also true: into Tea for Two may creep a few bars of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Says wide-eyed Hazel: “I just can’t help it.”

Uptown, Downtown. Hazel got this lucrative bad habit while quite young. Born in Trinidad, she had lived in New York’s Harlem most of her life. When she was a sober little girl of 13, she was given free piano lessons by a teacher in the Juilliard School. Her teacher got sick—the lessons stopped. She kept on studying the classics herself, but to relieve boredom, now & then sneaked in a few stray blue-notes and hot syncopations. This became instinctive to the point of a wonderful vice.

At 15, after her father’s death, she became pianist in an all-female band. Three years later she stopped a Broadway show, Sing Out the News, with her sultry rendition of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. But her break came with a chance to fill in for ailing Blues Singer Ida Cox at Barney Josephson’s downtown Café Society, a Manhattan Mecca for jazz connoisseurs. Result: Hazel Scott has been entertaining Café Society audiences ever since. Two years ago Showman Josephson opened a Cafe Society Uptown to house her art with greater swank, now finds it packed nightly with Scott fans: socialites, Broadway sophisticates, savants-about-town. Celebrities regard her with reverence, movie stars ask her for autographs. When Lieut. Commander John Duncan Bulkeley (They Were Expendable) came to New York, he picked out Hazel Scott on the welcoming platform, greeted her with “I’ve always wanted to meet you, Miss Scott.”

Last spring Hollywood Director Gregory Ratoff, in Manhattan on a talent hunt, filmed a few sequences of Entertainer Scott at the piano, took them back to Hollywood to insert in a new Jack Oakie-Don Ameche picture, Something to Shout About. Columbia officials saw the sequences, quickly revamped the film, wrote in a fat part for her, brought her out to Hollywood. Then Ratoff discovered her dusky singing voice.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could sing?” demanded Director Ratoff in his unreproduceable dialect.

Replied Hazel: “You didn’t ask me.”

Now back in Manhattan, Hazel Scott is leading the life she likes best: three appearances nightly; daytime hours in & out of her new stucco house in suburban White Plains, where she sometimes grubs in her Victory garden, more often listens to recordings.

Her ambition: to play the classics straight. In five years, she believes, she will be ready for a strictly long-hair Carnegie Hall recital. But no one else thinks for a minute that Hazel Scott could ever play a whole evening of absolutely straight piano.

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