Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Valaida Snow, Jazz Trumpeter (1920's-1950's)

Good morning!!

Man alive, it has been way too long, kiddos! How in the heck are you? I'm still slinging books with greater accuracy and speed than ever--I'll tell you, this new job breaks down into 100% less transient men catcalling me at a public desk, but also 100% less free time than I had at my old government employ. So don't think I've forgotten you! I'm still to be seen each and every Saturday morning out at the better Davidson County estate sale offerings (meaning, the ones with the dustiest atics and highest density of fur coats per square foot) and I'm still hounding down "things you'd think Lisa would be interested in" both in print and the wide world of the web.... I EVEN still find time in my idle moments to dig up the best in vintage dirt for you. Being as this is one of those moments, I thought I'd dial you up and give you the run-down on this doll-eyed vintage vixen. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Valaida Snow:

Doesn't she remind you of Clara Bow? I wish someone would say that JUST ONCE about me!
A couple weeks ago I broke down and got the paid membership version of Spotify, mainly because my father-in-law and his wife were coming over for dinner and since my aged, much abused iPod finally bit the dust, I didn't want my early jazz playlist constantly interrupted by messages about Square Space and Audible.com. Don't think it didn't pain my penurious little heart, but I realized that for $7.99/month, I WOULD GLADLY pay to listen to an uninterrupted feed of my francophone swing music and obscure David Bowie recordings (I would like to report that Baal is on Spotify in its entirety, and isn't the world a better place for it). So far it's served me very well! (End unsponsored rant). The wonder of what all is out there in the world these days for you to just pull up with the click of a button. Speaking of....

I recreated a playlist of a Smithsonian Folkways jazz series compilation from the early fifties' (the music on it was vintage THEN, as it came from the twenties' and thirties'), and while I was listening, came across a song I really liked on a Doxy records compilation of work by a pretty girl singer named Valaida Snow. "What a cute little voice, she reminds me of Ethel Waters a little bit..." ((tapping toes)) "CHECK OUT THAT TRUMPET THOUGH. Wow! I wonder if it's King Oliver or Louis Armstrong or some other linear-descendant of that too-hot-to-touch trumpet tradition?"  


Oh...so it turns out, the singer, the gal on the cover, and the trumpet player, are all one gorgeous multi-talented package: Valaida Snow. 

Give me just one occasion in my life in which I get to wear a tulle ruff like this...if I'm very, very good?

Valaida Snow was born around the turn of the century in Chattanooga, Tennessee, though the exact date seems to jump around a little from source to source. A multi-instrumentalist, singer, and dancer, Valaida began her professional career at fifteen, touring in America and abroad throughout the twenties' and thirties' in a number of all-black musical revues, culminating professionally in 1931's Rhapsody in Black. The star and top billed attraction of Rhapsody was none other than the aforementioned soundalike Ethel Waters, against whom a cash strapped Lew Leslie, as producer, pitted Valaida in a professional and personal rivalry that he hoped would cause the better known (and more expensively salaried) Waters to quit. Neither quit, but neither was it the congenial, all us gals together backstage atmosphere of other productions they'd appeared in together. According this book excerpt, Waters and Snow's rivalry extended to the point that New Yorkers eager to fete the women and the rest of the cast in an after party would have to throw two separate soirees, one to which Valaida was invited and Ethel wasn't; and one to which Ethel was invited and Valaida wasn't. I care less about the diva arms race and more about this passage:

At the time of Rhapsody in Black

In 1934, a thirtysomething year old Snow married one half of the Berry Brothers, a dance act. Ananais Berry was handsome, talented, and young. Emphasis on the young, as the fifteen plus year age gap between nineteen year old Berry and his bride was a serious sticking point in the media and caused controversy even within the entertainment community. I was able to find a couple articles from the time in the Afro-American newspaper, adding to the mix charges of bigamy (she may or may not have been legally separated from a teenage marriage to her first husband) along with everything else:


As their marriage fell apart, Valaida decamped back to Europe, where she toured successfully and enjoyed the freedom of a beautiful, brilliant, expatriate black woman abroad. She appeared in a French film, worked with Maurice Chevalier on stage, and performed for heads of state in places as far flung as Shanghai and Luxemborg, before Nazi occupation of the hexagon seemed imminent. Old friend and Broadway costar Josephine Baker encouraged her to leave France for the states-- Valaida got as far as Denmark. As this clip points out, that would be THE FIRST of three countries to fall into German occupation. Valaida spent a harrowing 18 months in a German occupation camp, which she described in the following clippings from a 1943 issue of Afro-American (right click "open image in new window" or save the photo for a full sized version):

Could you even believe that twist? Released in a prisoner exchange, a sixty-some odd pound Valaida, down from her usual petite 100, returned to America sans the gold trumpet the queen of the Netherlands had given her or any of her glamorous possessions, but nevertheless began to rebuild her career with characteristic grit and determination. Here she is in 1946 singing and playing trumpet in a brief musical clip, looking as gorgeous and sounding as fabulous as ever:


Valaida's star waned into the fifties' as she accepted Catskills dates and continued working and playing concerts throughout the northeast, before passing away of a brain hemorrage in 1956. Nevertheless! THIS gal at least, in 2015, is more than impressed with the talent and fantastic backstory behind a haphazard Spotify click. Wouldn't it make a riveting movie? I'm looking forward to tracking down a copy of her biography, but 'til then, you can check out her music on Spotify or Youtube. You won't be disappointed.

So! What have you been listening to lately? Found anything completely by accident that you've fallen head over heels in love with? What little known musical gem would you recommend digging up in this marvelous age of technology we live in? I'd love to hear from you, it's been ages!

Back with more vintage tangents and tchotckes soon-- I'll try not to go so long between posting! Have a fabulous Tuesday and we'll talk soon. Til next time!


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