Valaida Snow - Black Jazz Stories

Valaida Snow - Black Jazz Stories

Written by Rebecca Elder

Valaida Snow: Trumpeter, Singer, Jazz Meteor of the 20s and 30s
Valaida Snow (1905 - 1956) lived most of her life on stage and on the road. She was born to a traveling show business family, the eldest of four children, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her mother taught Valaida and her siblings to perform and Valaida showed great promise early on. By the age of 15, she was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, singer, and dancer, and began to appear professionally in many touring shows. Although little known today, Snow was a superstar on three continents in the 1930s. She performed jazz on major international stages where many heard the music for the first time. 

Although most women of that era did not play brass instruments, she preferred the trumpet and became one of a few superior female trumpet players in the 1930s. She soon acquired the nickname, “Little Louis,” from Louis Armstrong himself who acknowledged her greatness. Armstrong and Earl Hines were among her fans as early as 1928. W.C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues, named her “Queen of the Trumpet.”
Snow was a charismatic performer who also sang and danced. During 1926-29, she visited Europe and the Far East. Snow appeared in Broadway shows in the U.S. in the early 30s and then spent the second half of the 1930s performing throughout Europe. 
Though she was frequently compared to Louis Armstrong, Valaida was a star in her own right. Snow was one of the first Black vocalists to sing traditional Broadway songs and transform them into jazz standards. 

Musical Development

Valada’s mother was a Howard University-educated music teacher who taught her children to play instruments and sing. Her father was a minister who assembled a troupe of child performers known as the Pickaninny Troubadours who toured throughout the South performing on Black theater and vaudeville stages. Valaida was the star attraction who was already stealing the show at four or five years old. 

Valaida was a performer who riveted audiences with her dancing, singing, and trumpet playing—all on the same tune. She often employed an element of surprise. For example, she would dance at the end of the chorus line but then jump into the spotlight and stop the show with her extraordinary trumpet skills. 

Snow's ability to combine several skills “for the price of one” not only entertained her fans during difficult times but may have served as a form of employment insurance during the Great Depression. Snow has been criticized for perpetuating the myth of the female musician as a novelty act, yet had she concentrated solely on playing the trumpet it is unlikely that she would have attained even a fraction of her success given the bias against women who played brass instruments. Despite the "novelty" aspect of her performances, her musicianship on the trumpet was highly acclaimed by the great jazz musicians of her time.

Broadway, World Tours

As Black musical theater started to take off in the 1920s, so did Valaida’s career. Snow began to receive national attention when she joined the revue “Holiday in Dixieland” in 1921 when she was 16 years old. “A singer who danced was not uncommon. A good singer who danced well was rarer. A very good singer who danced exceptionally well - indeed with abandon - and then played the blues on cornet was simply unprecedented.” (Miller 34)

In 1922, Snow gained more attention while headlining Barron Wilkins' Harlem cabaret show where she danced, sang, and played both violin and trumpet. After a residency there, she was on the road again in 1923 with small jazz bands in the US. Snow made her Broadway debut in 1925 with “Chocolate Dandies,” a musical by the Black composing team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The cast included newcomers Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. 

Despite her talent, Snow had fewer recording opportunities than many of her male peers. “While many musicians held residencies in New York or Chicago clubs during the 1920s and ’30s, often catapulting to famous recording careers, Snow stayed on the road, possibly because club owners and promoters did not see women as viable bandleaders.” (Russonello) Instead, Snow predominantly toured, playing concerts throughout the US, Europe, and China. Her acclaim increased with each performance. In 1926, she toured London and Paris with Lew Leslie's "Blackbirds" revue and from 1926 to 1928, she toured with Jack Carter's Serenaders in Shanghai, Singapore, Calcutta, and Jakarta. Snow was an international celebrity by 1928 when she headlined at Chicago's Sunset Cafe, where her energetic performances won the admiration of Louis Armstrong as well as Earl Hines. 

Although popular with Black audiences in the U.S., Snow, like many African-American performers, found greater opportunities to perform and record abroad. Europe was a haven for American jazz musicians where they found respite from some of the social and economic problems in their homeland. Returning to the US, and its segregation policies, must have been a very difficult decision for African American artists like Snow. “Over the latter half of the 1930s, Snow recorded roughly 40 sides in studios across Europe, including her signature song, ‘High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm.’ But she never made a commercial recording in the United States as a trumpeter.” (Russonello) In 1939, she heeded the warning to depart France along with other Americans because of the impending invasion by the Nazis. Unfortunately, she did not heed warnings to leave Europe altogether.

Detained in Denmark

Snow was based in Denmark when the Nazis came to power in WW2 and began their sweep from nation to nation. There is much controversy surrounding what happened to her during this period. “Starting in 1940, while living in Europe, Snow found herself stuck for two years in Nazi-occupied Denmark, staying even after her manager had fled.” (Russonello) Due to the German occupation, American ships could not enter Danish ports and Danish ships couldn’t leave. 

German Soldiers standing outside Vestre Fængsel, a prison in Denmark

Although she claimed otherwise, Snow had not spent any time in a concentration camp; there were none in Denmark and the Germans didn’t take over Denmark’s penal systems until 1943. In 1942, Valaida was detained at Copenhagen’s main jail, Vestre Fængsel, without criminal charges. A week after she was detained, Snow was transferred to a psychiatric ward ostensibly to treat her drug addiction. “By relocating prisoners from Vestre Fængsel to the hospital, the Danes had managed to protect a number of their political prisoners and resisters.” (Brown 276)

”In this climate of surveillance and fear, the Danes had protected Snow.” (Brown 277)

The Danish police may have waited to arrest her until they had a way to smuggle her out of the country. “By keeping Snow under surveillance, the local Danish officials shielded her from what would possibly have been a worse fate in the hands and camps of the Nazis. This is the most likely version of events, considering the Danish protection of Jewish people, both refugees from the Third Reich as well as Danish Jews, during the occupation.” (Brown 277)

Yesterday’s Favorite

https://www.factinate.com/people/valaida-snow-facts/

Snow returned to New York in 1942 and was performing again by 1943, mostly in nightclubs and cabarets instead of theater shows. Jack Carter helped to reintroduce her to US audiences after a six year absence. “Carter helped spin the tale of her concentration camp internment. This tale, as well as obscuring the more despairing version of low-grade addiction and poverty, made much more exciting postwar press.” (Brown 278) Snow joined Carter’s Sunset Royal Band briefly, toured stateside military bases, and played another engagement at the Apollo. After a year performing in Los Angeles, Snow resumed touring the U.S. and Canada in 1946. In 1949, she starred in a Town Hall concert in New York, singing spirituals and songs by Harold Arlen and George Gershwin

After more than 40 years of ever-increasing popularity and onstage adoration, Snow witnessed diminishing audiences and fewer gigs. By the early 50s, “There was less attention now of any sort. ‘Yesterday’s favorite,’ read a cutline in the Los Angeles Tribune when the newspaper published her photograph. In 1950, the rave reviews were going to Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan, while the salacious headlines belonged to Billie Holiday,” (Miller 129).

Valaida Snow’s last engagement was at New York's Palace Theater in 1956. She suffered a stroke shortly after the engagement ended and died three weeks later. 

 

Sources
Brown, Jayna. Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. Duke University Press Books, 2008.

Miller, Mark. High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life of Valaida SnowThe Mercury Press, 2007

Russonello, Giovanni. “Overlooked No More: Valaida Snow, Charismatic ‘Queen of the Trumpet.’” New York Times, 22 Feb. 2020. 

Videos
K Ray. April 2013. Valaida Snow: Patience and Fortitude

crownpropeller. November 2011. Valaida Snow: The Mood That I'm In (1937) Rare photos! “The photographs of Valaida Snow with Derek Neville's orchestra were taken 1937 in Zürich by Hans Spreng and come from the Otto Flückiger collection.” 

Further Reading
Handy, Antoinette. Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras. Scarecrow Press, 1981


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