Harrison, Hazel (1883–1969)

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Harrison, Hazel (1883–1969)

African-American concert pianist who was the first fully American-trained performer to appear with a European orchestra. Born Hazel Lucille Harrison on May 12, 1883, in La Porte, Indiana; died on April 28, 1969, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Hiram and Olive Jane (Woods) Harrison; married Walter Bainter Anderson, on September 1, 1919 (divorced late 1920s); married Allen Moton, in 1950s (divorced).

Hazel Harrison was born in LaPorte, Indiana, in 1883, and grew up an only child in a musical environment. Her father played piano at the First Presbyterian Church and was the director and a soloist for the church choir. Hazel displayed exceptional musical talent early in her life when she began piano lessons at the age of four. She was encouraged in her endeavors by her father and Richard Pellow, an English organist at the First Presbyterian Church who was also her first teacher.

By the time she was eight, Harrison was supplementing the family income by playing at local dance parties. At one such affair, she came to the attention of German musician Victor Heinze who became her teacher for many years. He proved to be instrumental in her development as a musician; under his tutelage, she acquired an amazing keyboard technique, a lyrical quality to her performance, and a large repertory of music. When Heinze moved to Chicago, Harrison commuted between La Porte and Chicago to remain under his guidance. Many of his patrons considered her his most gifted student.

In 1902, Harrison graduated from La Porte High School and continued her studies for a career on the concert stage. During this time, she also continued entertaining at dance parties as well as teaching the children of many of La Porte's upper-class families. Harrison's professional career got off to an auspicious start. On October 22, 1904, she performed as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of August Scharrer. It was the first appearance with a European orchestra by an American performer who had not studied outside the United States, and she impressed German critics.

When Harrison returned to America, she resumed her teaching and touring schedule in La Porte. The critical acclaim she received, after a recital at Kimball Hall in Chicago in 1910, resulted in the financial support needed for a return trip to Germany for additional study. In 1911, she began lessons in Berlin with Hugo van Dalan who arranged for an audition with Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni. Upon hearing her, Busoni was so impressed with her style that he agreed to oversee her training even though he had previously decided against taking new students.

Harrison developed a close bond with Busoni and his family. He encouraged her to visit museums and art galleries and to expand her knowledge of the arts. She studied German philosophy and literature and at the same time worked with Busoni's assistant, Egon Petri, a Dutch pianist. With the outbreak of World War I, Harrison returned to America, moving to Chicago.

On September 1, 1919, Harrison married Walter Bainter Anderson, but the marriage failed; they were divorced in the late 1920s. During this period, Harrison's fame grew as she criss-crossed America on recital tours. The Depression years of the 1930s were difficult, however, and Harrison was forced to increase her teaching hours in order to make a living.

Harrison championed contemporary European, German, Russian and Polish composers, and frequently included works by black composers as well as variations of Strauss waltzes and Bach organ works in her recitals. For her strong yet sensitive performances, she continued to receive praise and played at such locations as Town Hall and Aeolian Hall in New York City, Jordan Hall in Boston, and Kimball Hall in Chicago. She was applauded for her performances by such well-established critics as Glenn Dillard Gunn, music reviewer for the Washington (D.C.) Times-Herald, and yet, despite the immense praise, she was denied access to many of the mainstream concert halls in America because of her race. Although lauded by the black press as a premier black pianist and the greatest pianist of all time, widespread recognition by white Americans eluded her.

Thus Harrison's performances were restricted to specialized audiences and special occasions. She performed with the Minneapolis Symphony under Eugene Ormandy in 1932 in a concert at Tuskegee (Ala.) Institute and, in 1949, she appeared with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony under the direction of Izeler Solomon during a convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians. A 1922 review, filled with praise for her talents, ended on a somber note: "[I]t seems too bad that the fact that she is a Negress may limit her future plans."

As a piano teacher, Harrison developed many talented young musicians. In November of 1931, she joined the School of Music at Tuskegee Institute and remained there until 1937 when she joined Howard University in Washington, D.C., as the head of its piano faculty. She taught at Alabama State College in Montgomery, at Jackson College in Mississippi, and in 1945 established the Olive J. Harrison Piano Scholarship fund at Howard University in honor of her mother. The scholarship was funded by the proceeds from her recitals as well as her students' recitals.

Hazel Harrison gave recitals for war relief during the 1940s and 1950s and supported various causes, including civil uprisings in the Soviet Union, Spain, and Latin America. She took leave from Howard University from 1947 to 1950 to tour America and in 1952 toured the western provinces of Canada. For a brief time during the 1950s, Harrison was married to Allen Moton, but this union also ended in divorce. In 1955, she resigned from Howard. She died in a nursing home on April 28, 1969.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Harrison, Hazel (1883–1969)

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Harrison, Hazel (1883–1969)