Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Black History Month: Valaida Snow

Ok, so I'm officially starting Black History Month early (February's a short month, anyway!) All February, I'll be focusing on African American musicians and writers for my Monday book post & Wednesday music post. If you missed Monday's post on the Jubilee Singers, you can catch up here.

To me, Valaida Snow is one of the most interesting musicians of the 1920's & 30's. She was an incredibly talented trumpet player and arranger and had perfect pitch and impeccable timing. The only thing was, girls didn't play in the brass section in those days. It was considered improper, vulgar, far from feminine.

But Valaida had loads of talent and perseverence. She spent years playing in all-girl bands that were ridiculed or hired only as novelty acts, sleeping on floors and getting kicked out of club after club because of her race, her gender, or both. Eventually, she became quite a celebrity (complete with a lavender car and a pet monkey!) and began to spend most of her time touring in Asia and Europe, where many African American musicians found a friendlier social climate than they experienced in the U.S.

Louis Armstrong famously called Valaida Snow the 2nd best trumpet player in the world (next to himself, of course!)

The end of her life is a bit of a tragic mystery. The story I've always heard is that when World War II began and many African Americans in Europe began returning to the U.S. to avoid the Nazi regime, Valaida chose to stay, and in 1940 was detained in a concentration camp in Denmark for two years (this is the story that Valaida stuck to her whole life.) Well, yesterday I was browsing Wikipedia, and they tell quite a different story. Further research on the subject has shown that either story is plausible and could have happened, though no one seems to have any real evidence either way. By any account, she was never the same afterwards. She tried to return to performing, but with very little success and energy.

A good place to begin with Valaida Snow's music is Hot Snow: Queen of Trumpet and's a great 2 disc set of Valaida Snow's work. Her combination of trumpet playing and singing is full of joy, pizazz, and energy. If you like swing music, I think you'll love it!

A couple random sites with Valaida Snow biographies:
Valaida Snow: Queen of the Trumpet (audio program)
Nina Mae McKinney's "Valaida Snow: The Real Queen of Jazz"


Anonymous said...

Reba says: That is so interesting. Thanks for telling us about her!

Bill says: We love your blog it's very cool you're doing Black History Month. I was even able to get RR over to read the blog tonight.

Reba: But don't you think you should have at least one blog entry dedicated to this coming Sunday? We think you could fit it in somehow.

Josephine Cameron said...

Thanks guys! And you're right, of course. I hadn't thought about it, but *naturally* this week's Grab Bag Friday should be devoted to Sunday's big event. I'll see what I can do. Stay tuned...

BRE said...

Thank you Josephine for this wonderful bio on Valaida Snow. I've never heard of her until I read your post BUT I'm gonna start doing some research on her now.

We are doing a special commemoration to the history of blacks and Africans in Germany and Europe at my blog this month which might be interesting for you. Since some German researchers, students, and historians are assisting me with this work perhaps we could look for records from the NS Zeit (WWII Nazi Germany) about her detention in Danemark and her subsequent release.

Gosh she was a beautiful woman, wasn't she? She must have been an absolute sensation in the nightclubs of Berlin.

BRE said...

BTW Josephine:

Just downloaded and listened to your audio clip Long Night_3 (?) available from your Blogger profile page.

Wow! What a voice. Beautiful.

Auf Wiedersehen (oder Wiederhören).

Josephine Cameron said...

Your commemoration project sounds very interesting. I will certainly visit your blog & check it out! And if you find any interesting tidbits about Valaida Snow, I'd love to hear what you come up with. I find her endlessly fascinating (and yes, very beautiful!)

Thanks also for the nice comments about Long Night. I'm really glad you enjoyed it! You can listen to other free downloads on my website:

Take care & good luck with all your research! I hope you'll visit again.

BRE said...

Hi Josephine,

I received your message today at Jewels and again thank you for your visit. We've organized an online workgroup to discuss, collaborate and publish articles about black and African history in Europe, so please stay tuned for our debut articles and posts due to appear sometime this month.

The jazz singer and trumpeter Valaida Snow came up in our discussions and of course I thought about your post. The filmmaker and writer Candace Allen published a book titled "Valaida" in 2004 and there are interviews with Candace available online from that same year. We also found some information about her participation in a conference on the Black Atlantic that took place in Copenhagen but I am awaiting some feedback about papers and documentation from that event.

Here are the URL's to the WGBH interview and the BBC Radio 4 programme interview:

WGBH Forum Network
Candace Allen - Truth vs. Style: Challenge of Valaida Snow

BBC Radio 4 - Woman's Hour
Candace Allen on Valaida Snow

Candace Allen, who now lives and works in London, has a pretty interesting background herself. She was also married (briefly) to Sir Simon Rattle, the present conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Symphony, but he dumped her for a Czech mezzo-soprano. Go figure.

Here is the link to her latest article about classical music and race for the UK Guardian newspaper:

All white on the night? by Candace Allen - March 5, 2008