Hazel Scott: First Black American TV Show Host!

Having already done posts on Hazel Green, Hazel Deane, and Hazel Dawn, I am chagrined to realize that I have not yet done one on Hazel Scott (1920-81), who made significant marks in nearly every field of show business: live performance, recordings, radio, television and movies. She sang, was a high-skilled jazz and classical pianist, played trumpet too and several other instruments, and on top of all that was gorgeous. Though posterity still remembers her primarily as a singer, her most significant historical accomplishment may be as the first Black American to host her own television show.

Scott was a second generation musician, privately trained as a child by one of the faculty at Julliard. As a teenager, she performed with her mother’s traveling orchestras Alma Long Scott’s All-Girl Jazz Band, and the American Creolians. The last was so named because Trinidad is where Scott’s mother hailed from and where Hazel was born. Her father, African scholar R. Thomas Scott had left the family by the time she was four. She spent most of her childhood in Harlem. Considered a child prodigy she was already playing on WOR radio and the Mutual Broadcasting System by the time she was 16. Starting in the mid ’30s she was performing with Count Basie and others at major venues like the Roseland Ballroom and Cafe Society (she was on the bill with Billie Holiday when she introduced “Strange Fruit”). Her eclectic mixture of classical, blues, boogie-woogie, jazz and Tin Pan Alley tunes made for terrific showmanship.

Scott was in The Cotton Club Revue of 1938 and two Broadway shows: Sing Out the News (1938-39) and Priorities of 1942. She performed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. You can also see her in such movies as I Dood It (1943) with Red Skelton, The Heat’s On (1943) with Mae West, Broadway Rhythm (1943), and the Gershwin bio-pic Rhapsody in Blue (1944). In 1945 she married Harlem minister and U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell II (thus she was the mother of Adam Clayton Powell III!) During these years she may be considered a rival to Lena Horne and Una Mae Carlisle.

Years of stage, screen and radio success finally led to a pinnacle: she became the first person of color to host an American television program, The Hazel Scott Show on the Dumont network in 1950. Max Roach and Charles Mingus were part of the show’s house band! Testimony before HUAC supposedly resulted in the early cancelation of the show, but she continued to be booked on major shows like the variety programs of Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan, Cavalcade of Stars, etc in addition her continuing stardom on radio, record, and in night clubs.

In 1957 she went to England and performed on Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium. She then moved to France, where she had speaking roles in two French films, and continued to live for the next decade. She and Powell divorced in 1960. Scott returned to the States in 1967 and became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement. She did the talk show circuit and, in a bit of inspired symbolism, appeared in two episodes of Diahann Carroll’s Julia. Her last TV appearance was on The Mike Douglas Show in 1972.

Cancer took Hazel Scott at the young age of 61.

For more on variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,