Models of courage and resistance, even when the cost might be the career you’ve worked so hard for, are what are needed now. The past is overstuffed with heroes and heroines who’ve already drawn the map on how it should be done. The problem is that some of the most courageous figures, those who sacrificed the most, not only saw their careers derailed or flat out destroyed, but have also been just about lost to history.
One such heroine is Hazel Scott, the groundbreaking, much respected-by-her-peers jazz musician whose prodigious talent, glamorous and controversial life, cultural achievements, and principled political stances were all but forgotten until she was “rediscovered” a few years ago, and has been the subject of growing interest ever since.
What Ever Happened to Hazel Scott?, a short but informative documentary, traces her life from her birth in Trinidad in 1920 to her death from pancreatic cancer in New York in 1981. In between, she was a child prodigy on the piano (her mother dreamed that she’d become a renowned classical pianist) who turned the jazz world on its ear before she was twenty. Billie Holiday was responsible for her first really big break, and she took the style known as “swinging the classics” (in which jazz musicians overhauled classical music pieces with jazz flourishes) to unprecedented heights, given her brilliance with both classical music and jazz. Her foray into films (she refused to play the maids, mammies or prostitutes that were then almost all being offered to black actresses by Hollywood) was brought to a halt after five films when she led a strike to get more realistic costumes for the Black characters in a film she was appearing in, and was subsequently blackballed by the studios.
Hazel Scott was eventually caught up in the Red Scare of the 1950s and brought in to testify before the House Un-American Committee. Her principled stance when being questioned earned her the respect of those fighting McCarthyism but forced her to eventually flee to Europe to get work when jobs suddenly vanished in America. And that doesn’t even get to her marriage to iconic Civil Rights leader Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (with whom she had a son), or her being the first African American woman to host her own TV show.
The documentary covers all of it quickly, succinctly, and informatively. It contextualizes Scott’s artistic/cultural and political importance in a way that underlines her importance and heroism without being too hagiographic. The voiceover narration has the feel of a precocious undergrad’s research paper – achingly earnest, studiously argued. The upside of that is that the passion of writer-director Eve Goldberg’s video essay is palpable, pulling the viewer into Goldberg’s admiration of her subject.