Valaida Snow Credit: Public Domain photo

Since this is Black Music Month, it’s a prime time to feature Valaida Snow, a versatile musician I have always wanted to profile in the “Classroom.” I was reminded of her extraordinary life and career recently reading Grant Harper Reid’s “Rhythm for Sale,” a biography of his grandfather, Leonard Harper, the dancer, producer and unsung impresario.

Reid’s account spurred me to inquire further into Snow’s journey that began in Chattanooga, Tenn., the birthplace of the famous blues diva Bessie Smith. The blues was a forte for Snow, as was other musical forms. At a very early age, Snow was given instruction of a veritable orchestra of instruments by her mother, a graduate on Howard University. Her mother, who often performed with her husband, also gave music lessons to Snow’s sisters, Lavaida and Alvaida. By her teen years, Snow was proficient on the cello, guitar, banjo, mandolin, clarinet, harp and accordion, and the trumpet, which ultimately would be her instrument of choice and take her to international fame.

“Her first national recognition resulted from an appearance at Barron Wilkins’s Harlem Cabaret in 1922,” wrote D. Antoinette Handy in her comprehensive study “Black Women in American Bands & Orchestras.” If it’s true she was born in 1904 (and various dates have been cited), then she was 18 and well on her way to joining some of the top bands and orchestras of the day.

There is a photo of her, scantily clad with a trumpet in her mouth, during her tour with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical “Chocolate Dandies” in 1924, where Lena Horne and Josephine Baker were among the chorus girls.

But according to several noted authorities on her life, Snow’s heyday was in the 1930s, when she was the toast of Paris and London. With her signature recording, “High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm,” she gained a huge following, and her popularity gave her marquee billing at clubs and theaters all over the world. It was during this period that she was called “The Queen of the Trumpet,” and even the great Louis Armstrong said she was second only to him on the horn.

Her reputation was greatly enhanced by her film appearances, along with a successful run at the Apollo Theater. The world had never heard a woman so astounding on trumpet, and Snow didn’t shy from the adulation and prestige that increased with each performance. “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.”

Snow, the “curiosity,” 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 colored entertainer “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.

One author, Mark Miller, said he interviewed people who knew Snow. He concluded from these sessions that she was addicted to the painkiller oxycodone and was taken into custody by Danish authorizes in 1942, possibly for her own protection. She then, it was reported, was shuttled between a prison and a hospital in Copenhagen until safe passage was secured for travel to Sweden, and then back to the states.

In 1943, the same year she returned to the states, Snow, according to Handy, opened at the Apollo Theater, fronting the Sunset Royal Band, adding new zest to her nickname “Little Louis.” Samples of her style can be found on YouTube and several other websites. On these recordings, her articulation is as precise as it is coherent; she also possessed great speed and knew her way around a lovely ballad.

Over the course of the next decade or so, Snow continued to perform and record, though not with the same fervor as in the past. Obviously, she was still recovering from the European ordeal, whatever the circumstances. Soon, she took time away from travel and performing to marry Ananias Berry, a member of the fabulous Berry Brothers dance team. Her second husband was Earle Edwards, a performer and producer.

She was highly praised as late as 1950, after after an engagement at Harlem’s Alhambra and later at the Waldorf Astoria. There was also an article noting her appearance at a benefit for the Hebrew Home for the Aged.

Snow’s death in 1956, after a performance at the Palace Theater, was a headline story in practically every daily in New York City, and many entertainment publications posted lengthy obituaries of the woman many considered the real “Queen of Jazz.” She was 52.