The Mystery of Hazel Green

There is a gent on IMDB who speculates that the Hazel Green in the 1927 Vitaphone Hazel Green & Company is the granddaughter of Confederate General John Stuart Williams and was born on July 3, 1892. Williams, who later became a U.S. Senator and the Founder of Naples, Florida, was from Kentucky. Early in the war, when still a Colonel, he participated in futile efforts to prevent a Union takeover of his home state, which included a minor action in the community of Hazel Green.  The writer claims that the singer is named after this military action,  that he “once read a bio of her”, and that she got the job due to “producers romancing antebellum times.” The fact that one of the songs in her set is “Just a Bird’s Eye View (of My Old Kentucky Home)” is possible support of that idea.

But I’ve come to regard this entry as a prank — hardly the first one to adulterate IMDB. I can’t find corroboration anywhere for this romantic tale and it sounds like a stretcher. Why would you name a child after one of your defeats? Among other things. And there is the fact that all other evidence points to Green being African American. Her performance and the set in the short film are jazzy (it includes a very peppy, uptempo version of “Ain’t She Sweet”). Green tap dances in the film, along with a guest named Joe Lacurta. And we note that black artists were indeed represented in the Vitaphones. Hazel Green & Company is Vitaphone #2112. Just a couple of weeks earlier, the company had recorded Vitaphone #2009: Carolynne Snowden and Company “Colored Syncopation”.

Moreover, every single contemporary printed reference I’ve come across indicates pretty clearly she was African American. (Thanks to Keller Whalen of TheHidehoBlog.com for digging some of this up).

A 1946 obituary for Hazel’s show biz mother “Ma” Green in Harlem’s Amsterdam News gives us some of our best information to date on Hazel’s origins. Ma’s real name was Mrs. Estelle Klein; she was born in 1874. With her husband Ed Klein, and daughter Hazel she had a vaudeville act called Green, Miller and Green. I find references to this act playing houses from Boston to Salina, Kansas as early as 1917. The act ended in 1921 when Ed Klein (“Miller”, presumably) died. In several newspaper clippings I see him referred to as Estelle’s husband; never Hazel’s father. Around the same time, (1918), I find references to Hazel singing in black vaudeville in a duo with blues pioneer Bessie Smith. 

I found an ad for Hazel performing in Baltimore with a “company of five” in 1922.  This January 1923 ad for an engagement at Poli’s Bridgeport describes her act (“Hazel Green and Her Band”) as a “Riot of Color” — a probable allusion to the race of the performers, lending authenticity of the jazz, which was common in advertising at the time:

I find other references to the band playing in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Toronto, Brooklyn and New York City. The act is sometimes billed as “Hazel Green and Her Boys” or “Hazel Green and Her Beau Brummels”. Here’s one of her playing D.C.:

In 1928, Hazel was teamed with singer Al Vann in an act called Vann and Green. Pretty quickly, the pair split rather acrimoniously into two acts, “Hazel Green and Her Cadets” (described by Harlem trade press as an “ofay” or white act), and “Al Vann and His Gang”, which played the Fox circuit. Green seems to have been a pioneer in integrated acts, a rarity at the time. In 1930 she produced a show called The Black and White Revue, featuring artists of both races, the best known of whom was female impersonator Bothwell Browne. There are references to this show, which had a cast of 40, through 1932.

Ma retired from performing in 1932. For the next several years, the mother-daughter team produced and staged musical revues for night clubs and tab shows for vaudeville, and also booked and managed other acts all over the country. Ma is credited with discovering Sunshine Sammy, George Dewey WashingtonBlanche Calloway (Cab Calloway’s sister), “Baby” Hines, and many others. After Ma passes from the scene, Hazel continued to work as a booking agent and producer. The last reference we’ve found is to a Hazel Green produced show called Harlem Capers of 1952 at the Zebra Lounge in the Bronx. Interestingly, the bill for this show includes a singer called Hattie Green, who also made some records. Don’t know yet if she’s a relation!

We’re still working on this post — too many unanswered questions. Was Ed Klein her father? If so, was he white? The name is usually German or Jewish. And Hazel looks light skinned in that Vitaphone (see pic above). Either way, she was clearly a pioneer at pushing the envelope on bringing black music to white audiences, as well as integrating the casts of shows. In any case, that IMDB bio is sounding increasingly like the bunk.

You can see clips from Hazel’s Vitaphone on Youtube. In addition to the numbers already mentioned, the group also performed “That’s Why I Love You” and “I’ve Grown So Lonely.”

To learn more about vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

2 comments

  1. What a fascinated me in one of the newspaper clippings was a reference to a Vitaphone short of somebody reciting the Gettysburg address. Dressed as Lincoln, perhaps?

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