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.

And yet I’m doubtful. I can’t find corroboration anywhere and it sounds like a stretch. Why would you name a child after one of your defeats? Among other things. And there is the fact that Hazel Green looks like she may be African American, as do a couple of her musicians. Her performance and the set 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 one of the few references I can find to a singer named Hazel Green says she briefly formed a duo with blues pioneer Bessie Smith in 1918. Show biz was almost entirely segregated in those days; while not impossible, a black-and-white singing duo would have been rarer than rare. It would have meant that the white singer was willing to forego the better salaries and conditions of mainstream show business in order to perform in black vaudeville with Smith, which would be saintly but also highly unlikely. So the Hazel Green who sang with Bessie Smith etc had to have been at least partially black herself.

And then there’s this, taken from a book, which says she and her mother, one “Ma” Green choreographed a show at the Southland club in Boston, with Blanche Calloway (Cab Calloway’s sister) and a 14 piece band supplying the music in 1937.

Also, in the Bassically Speaking: An Oral History of George Duvivier, the musician’s mother Ismay Duvivier speaks of her own show business days and says this: “We all worked on the T.O.B.A. circuit…For a while I traveled with Ma Green and her daughter. That was a small combo…Normally there was about twelve girls in a [chorus] line, but there was one big production that required much more…” She also mentions a date in Baltimore (see below for the significance of that).

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”. 

In short, the Hazel Green in the first paragraph does not sound much like the Hazel Green in the subsequent paragraphs. And yet there is a possible third way. I found this reference to Williams’ step-son Colonel A.W. Hamilton fathering children with Williams’ mulatto cook in the 1870s. This practice may have been rooted in the family culture. Williams was married twice, but there was a period of a dozen years between the death of his first wife, and his marriage to his second one. During this period, he owned upwards of 50 slaves. And it’s well documented that master-slave relationships and forced concubinage existed during those times. So it’s possible that Hazel Green is BOTH a descendant of Williams AND part African American. This is the wildest speculation on my part; I’m just trying to reconcile some seemingly contradictory puzzle pieces with logic. I’ve come across very little information on the woman, and would obviously welcome more.

But little pieces do help fill it in and contribute to this case. In the 1927 Vitaphone we see Green leading a quintet of musicians. I found an ad for her for performing in Baltimore with a “company of five” in 1922. Seems like the same woman. And the collaboration with Bessie Smith was also in Baltimore. So THAT seems like the same woman. 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 possible 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., courtesy reader John Smith:

All of these references pre-date the Vitaphone release. Oddly, I can find no references to her after it. Did she retire? Die? Change her name? Again, wild speculation, but I found a reference to a Hazel Green who was born in 1929 to a mother named Hazel Williams Green and a father named Dewey Green. Could Hazel Williams Green be our singer, given all that we wrote above? The timing would be right (many female performers retired to start families), as would the maiden name, though, granted, its a common one. At any rate, we put this out there in case anyone has the true facts — we’d be only too glad to have the record clarified and corrected so folks can learn the truth about this interesting and entertaining singer and bandleader.

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.

 

 

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