Valaida Snow

Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s Valaida Snow, “Queen of the Trumpet” as she was often billed. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee (also the birthplace of Bessie Smith, incidentally). Like many others who became wonderful performers, she was brought up in a musical family. All her brothers and sisters grew up to become professional musicians and entertainers, but Valaida rose to become the star of the group. By the time she was 15, she had learned to play the cello, bass, banjo, violin, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, and saxophones “at a professional level” as well as singing and dancing. [1] She would also become a skilled arranger and had perfect pitch. What a woman!

She was given the name “Queen of the Trumpet” by W.C. Handy and Louis Armstrong would say that she was second only to himself as a trumpet player. (Who knows if that was before or after he met Tiny Davis!) Some would even call her “Little Louis.” [2] According to Linda Dahl, “By all reports, she was a charismatic bandleader and entertainer — to the detriment, some felt, of her potential as a musician.” Mary Lou Williams once said of Valaida’s playing, “She was hitting those high C’s just like Louis. She would have been a great trumpet player if she had dropped the singing and dancing, and concentrated on the trumpet.” [3]

Through the course of her career, she worked with such greats as Noble Sissel, Eubie Blake, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Maurice Chevalier, Earl Hines, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson, to name a few. Earl Hines recalled that “she was so talented … She always knew what she wanted and nobody could fool her.” [4]

The 1930s were her heyday and she lived a very flamboyant lifestyle. She had moved to Paris and found much success in Europe, famously riding to and fro a fancy car with driver, footman, and pet monkey who all dressed alike. [2]

Apparently, when WWII was brewing, her friend Josephine Baker tried to convince her to leave Europe for the safety of the US, but Snow decided to stay and there is considerable conjecture around what happened to her during the war. Herb Boyd writes the following in the NY Amsterdam News, “Snow was in Denmark when the Nazis came to power and began their sweep from nation to nation. There is much controversy surrounding Snow and what happened to her during this dramatic phase of her life. Was she detained in a Nazi concentration camp, where she was humiliated and molested by guards? Or was she merely placed under arrest by Danish authorities and held because of possession of illegal drugs? Whatever the case, she returned to the states in 1943. In an article published in the Amsterdam News, Snow was cited as the only entertainer [of color] ‘interned in a Nazi concentration camp.’ However, several authors have refuted this story, insisting it was a ruse created by Snow’s press agent to garner publicity and set the stage for her comeback.” [5]

Whatever happened, the episode was very traumatic for Valaida and she never fully had the comeback many hoped for her after the war. She continued to perform in the years following but tragically died of a brain hemorrhage 1956 backstage during a performance at the Palace Theater. [1]

“‘By all rights, Snow should have been a major superstar,’ wrote Jason Ankeny, one of her biographers, ‘but as a Black performer, she was subject to considerable racism; worse still, as a woman, she was an outsider even within the jazz community—her perfect pitch, gifts for arranging and brilliant trumpeting did not help her cause, but only made her that much more a curiosity.’” [5] Others who worked with her or studied her life said that she was very respected by other musicians because she was so talented. There’s a short documentary in the playlist below that is worth watching — it’s only about 9 minutes long.

Thankfully there are a great many recordings of Valaida on which we can hear her lovely, liquid singing voice and her wonderful and joyous trumpet playing. I only wish her trumpet playing was featured more heavily on these recordings. Listen here and enjoy!

(Re)sources

[1] “Valaida Snow: The Queen of Trumpet and Song.” Black German Cultural Society. February 7, 2014. (http://afrogermans.us/black-history-month-valaida-snow/).

[2] Kate Kelly. “Valaida Snow (1904-1956): Jazz Pioneer and ‘Queen of the Trumpet.'” America Comes Alive. (https://americacomesalive.com/2014/03/11/valaida-snow-1904-1956-jazz-pioneer-queen-trumpet/).

[3] Linda Dahl. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[4] Sally Placksin. American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982).

[5] Herb Boyd. “Valaida Snow: ‘Queen of the Trumpet.'” New York Amsterdam News. June 18, 2015. (http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2015/jun/18/valaida-snow-queen-trumpet/?page=1).

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