Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Snow, Valaida (Valada)

Trumpeter, singer and dancer Valaida Snow was a pioneering woman in jazz and among the first to reach an international audience. Like fellow boasters Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, her tall tales sometimes obscured the substantial accomplishments of her career, which took her from vaudeville to musical theater and cabaret, and stylistically, from early jazz through Swing to rhythm 'n' blues.

She was born Valada Snow in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on June 2, 1904; other years of birth, from 1900 to 1909, have been proposed for her in the literature of jazz and African-American theatrical history, but an entry at the Tennessee Department of Health Office of Vital Records records the birth of an unnamed daughter to Etta and J.V. Snow in 1904. This date is further supported by an entry in the U.S. census for 1910, which lists Etta, J.V. and Valada Snow as living in Corsicana, Texas, which was also the hometown of trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page.

Snow was singing, playing violin and dancing by the age of five as "Valada The Great," the star attraction of the Pickaninny Troubadours, a children’s troupe which worked under her parents’ direction throughout the southern United States. Her sister Lavada, who was born in Palatka, Florida in 1912, also appeared with the group, as did several other “adopted” children — by some accounts, orphans — who assumed the surname Snow. These included Hattie Snow, who had a modest recording career in the 1920s.

Snow and another veteran of the Troubadours, Jay Gould, continued to perform together into their teens as The Gold Dust Twins. She then joined the cast of Will Mastin’s revue Holiday in Dixieland, which took her at age seventeen to New York and other northern cities for the first time. Willie “The Lion” Smith, the revue’s pianist, later wrote that Snow “danced on one end of the chorus line and every now and then would step out of the line and stop the show playing her trumpet.”

According to songwriter Perry Bradford, one of Snow's features in the revue was a version of his “If You Don’t Want Me Why Don’t You Tell Me So,” copied from a recording Willie "The Lion" Smith made in 1920 with singer Mamie Smith,which featured a trumpet solo by Johnny Dunn. Typically, Snow both sang and played the trumpet solo, at a time when female brass players were exceedingly rare in jazz.

Taking the rootlessness of her childhood as the pattern for her adult years, she spent some of 1922 and 1923 on Chicago theater and cabaret stages, then returned to the road first with the revue Follow Me and then in the role of Manda with the Noble Sissle /Eubie Blake production of In Bamville, which was renamed The Chocolate Dandies when it opened in New York in September of 1924.

In 1926, Snow sang and danced again in Chicago at the Sunset Café, where Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra included her greatest influence, trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, and one of her many paramours, Earl "Fatha" Hines.

Said Armstrong to Hines after one of Snow’s exuberant dance routines involving several different types of footwear, from tap shoes to Dutch clogs, “Boy, I never saw anything that great.” Snow later wrote that she played on occasion at Armstrong’s side in the Dickerson trumpet section, and claimed that Armstrong had dubbed her “Little Louis,” a sobriquet that she used for promotion purposes during the 1930s.

Snow began her international career in 1926 when she traveled to China with clarinetist Albert Nicholas, Teddy Weatherford and others under drummer Jack Carter’s leadership. The group spent two years in Shanghai, followed by brief engagements in Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Calcutta and other cities in the Far East. She made her Paris debut in October 1929 with Sam Wooding’s orchestra while wending her way back to New York by this circuitous route.

After a European tour in 1930 in Louis Douglas’ production of Liza, Snow starred in 1931 and 1932 in New York with Ethel Waters in Lew Leslie’s Rhapsody in Black. Her duties included conducting the revue’s orchestra in a rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a feature that she subsequently reprised in her own act. It was at the outset of her association with Rhapsody in Black that she changed the spelling of her name from Valada to Valaida.

Snow made her first recording as a singer, “Maybe I’m to Blame,” with Earl Hines for Brunswick in 1933. Discographical references to her presence as a trumpeter on severa l titles by the Washboard Rhythm Kings for Vocalion in 1932 appear to have been based, erroneously, on confusion created by the vocal credit given to her sister Lavada by the label. Lavada Snow would have a lesser, though still successful career as a singer and dancer in her own right during the 1930s and 1940s.

Valaida Snow did not record as either a singer or trumpeter under her own name until she went to Britain with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1934. In four sessions for Parlophone in 1935, she cut 10 titles, most notably the coquettish “I Wish I Were Twins.” She recorded again for Parlophone in London when she returned in 1936 for a European sojourn that lasted until 1942.

Snow’s Parlophone sides from 1936 and 1937, together with her recordings for Sonora in Stockholm in 1939 and the Tono label in Copenhagen in 1940, amount to more than 30 tracks in total, all recorded with European bands. These cover a wide a range of material, including the torch songs “Mean to Me” and “You Let Me Down,” the novelties “Nagasaki” and “Minnie the Moocher,” and the jazz standards “Tiger Rag” and “St. Louis Blues.”

Snow's debt to Louis Armstrong is apparent on these tracks in both her singing at its most vivacious and in her trumpet solos, which tended to be rhythmically and tonally inconsistent but compellingly direct in their power and melodic content.

Snow stayed in Europe through the start of the Second World War. She first took Paris as her home, where she recorded with Django Reinhardt, then moved to Copenhagen. Despite warnings to leave Denmark as Hitler's Third Reich expanded, she was still in Denmark whe n it fell to Nazi invaders in 1940.

By then, Snow was addicted to the opiate painkiller oxycodone, and was taken into custody by Danish authorities in March 1942, possibly for her own protection. She shuttled between a prison and a hospital in Copenhagen until safe passage to New York was arranged for her via neutral Sweden two months later.

When Snow resumed her stateside career in the spring of 1943, she garnered considerable publicity with the claim that she had survived a long detention and severe beatings in an Nazi concentration camp. Her sensational but unsubstantiated account was at first taken at face value, but was questioned and ultimately debunked as it grew more embellished and less consistent with each new telling. This tall tale, however, became at least as much a part of the Snow legend, posthumously, as her equally sensational but fully deserved reputation as a vibrant and versatile entertainer.

Snow continued to take club and cabaret work as a singer and trumpeter in the United States and Canada throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s. In 1945, she recorded with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in Los Angeles, and also recorded, but only as a singer, for the Bel-Tone, Derby, and Apollo labels, and in 1953 for Chess Records. Her repertoire encompassed torch and pop songs, jump swing, calypso and, quite convincingly, rhythm 'n' blues.

Despite Snow's efforts to recapture the public’s imagination, she spent her final years fading from the public eye and popular tastes. She suffered a stroke during or shortly after a vaudeville engagement at the Palace Theater on Broadway and died in Brooklyn, New York on May 30, 1956.

Snow is the subject of a biography by the author of this entry, High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow, published in Toronto by The Mercury Press in 2007, and was the inspiration for several works of fiction, most notably Candace Allen’s Valaida: A Novel, published in London by Virago in 2004.

Select Discography

Valaida Snow’s studio recordings have been reissued in their entirety on three CDs by the Classics label:

The Chronogical [sic] Valaida Snow 1937-1940 (Classics 1122)

The Chronogical Valaida Snow 1933-1936 (Classics 1158)

The Chronogical Valadia Snow 1940-1953 (Classics 1343)

Her European studio recordings have been reissued by Harlequin as:

Valaida: Volume One (Harlequin HQCD12)

Valaida: Volume II (Harlequin HQCD18)

A two-disc set of European recordings has been released by DRG as:

Valaida Snow: Queen of the Trumpet (DRG 8445)

A complete discography, which includes her live recordings with Django Reinhardt in Paris in 1938 and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in Los Angeles in 1945, can be found in the biography of Snow written by Mark Miller.