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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Reblogging: Take Me, Take Me, Hazel Scott

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 25, 2014

Hazel Scott testifying before HUAC, September 1950. Photofest, via University of Michigan Press (Media Kit for Karen Chilton’s Hazel Scott)

Over at WNYC’s website, guest blogger Karen Chilton, author of an excellent biography of pianist Hazel Scott, introduces a segment that Scott recorded for “What America Means to Me,” a program that aired on Philadephia radio station WFIL in the early 1950s, on which the era’s “big names” were invited to “wax patriotic for three or four minutes.”  A Juilliard-trained prodigy “of dizzying talent,” Scott was equally at home in the jazz and classical worlds: early in her career, her act was billed as “Swinging the Classics.”  Yet as Chilton emphasizes, Scott used her three-and-a-quarter minutes to speak “not about Bach or boogie, but about bigotry,” in language that “toes the line between cautious and candid.”

Not cautious enough.  Scott’s critical brand of patriotism, like that of so many left-leaning entertainers of the day, ran afoul of Senator Joe McCarthy.  The former “Darling of Cafe Society” and star of radio, concert stage, and screen had recently become the first African-American to host her own television show, four years before Nat King Cole—but an investigation by HUAC was enough to lose her the gig.  Politics and personal life eventually drove Scott to France, where she remained for a decade.  She released two fine trio albums before she left, one in 1953 with Red Callender and Lee Young and another in 1955 with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.  But her years away grew increasingly troubled, and even after she rebounded (and returned to the States), her career never fully recovered.

Though raised in Harlem, Scott was born in Trinidad, and she called herself “an immigrant by choice.”  (WNYC titled its blog post “Say It Loud: Black, Immigrant and Proud.”) Back in 1943 the Associated Press wondered why Scott, who was pulling in $4000 a week in Hollywood when she wasn’t wowing the New York nightclub set, had “never attempted to popularize” calypso, even though she was reputed to own “one of the largest collections of calypso musical recordings in the country” and, after all, “specialize[d] in mixing cayenne pepper with the classics to produce an ecstatic brand of rhythm.”  Scott, who doubtless would have cringed at such patronizing language, modestly demurred that “Americans probably wouldn’t go for that particular brand of music.”  By 1957, of course, it was abundantly clear that they would, after a fashion.  And so Scott finally put her own brand on calypso, releasing a 45 rpm single on Decca with “Carnaval”—her cover of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” a road march associated with the Duke of Iron—on the A-side and “Take Me, Take Me”—recorded by the Keskidee Trio in 1935 as “Don’t Le’ Me Mother Know,” but also known as “Los Iros,” “Take Me,” and “Take Me Down to Los Iros”—on the B-side.  Sy Oliver led a raucous backup “carnival” band, and Scott herself handled the vocals (with help from an unidentified chorus).

You’ll find lots of Hazel Scott on YouTube, but not those tunes, sadly.  (Here, however, is one of the Duke of Iron’s recordings of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and the Keskidee Trio’s original of “Take Me.”)  What else is on the interwebs, Hazel-wise—or on public radio’s share of the bandwidth, anyway?  Well:

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