When Louis Armstrong saw Valaida Snow, “Queen of the Trumpet and Song,” in 1933, he was moved. “Boy, I never saw anything that great,” he recalled later. Valaida Snow’s talent was impressive: she danced, sang, and played multiple instruments, toured with Count Basie, and performed in Paris with Maurice Chevalier. She was called “Little Louis.”
A brown-skin beauty rumored to love both women and men, Snow was good friends with Josephine Baker. Both favored life in Europe, one of freedom and ambition, wealth, and the admiration of millions. It was also a life of a particular hubris born of racial prejudice that caused Valaida Snow, “the Female Louis Armstrong,” ultimately to vanish.
I don’t recall when I first learned of Snow, of her journey into far lands that more than a half a century later I would trek to as well. As a Detroit-born African American artist that would attend Parsons School of Design, a prestigious art college in New York City, I collected stories of artists—Baldwin, Ellison, and Wright—with whom I shared physicality, grit, and perhaps a similar creative future. But it was the story of Valaida Snow—much like a record snowfall that stops work, lives, and traffic—that was the transcendent tale.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on June 2, 1904, Valaida was one of five children. From an early age, she learned from her mother how to play all the instruments in the Snow family home: clarinet, bass, cello, guitar, harp, accordion, banjo, piano, mandolin, saxophone, violin, and the trumpet.
Snow’s talent blew her onto the vaudeville stage at the age of four. By fifteen, she had established herself as a dancer, singer, and trumpet player. Then in the 1920s Snow made the pivotal move of studying with trumpet legend, Dyer Jones. According to Cara Pollard, the author of Valaida Snow: A Life of Heartache and Triumph, Dyer, one of the greatest trumpet players of her day, was unrivalled by either sex. Dyer tutored her own daughter as well as Valaida Snow, turning the trumpet into an unlikely yet powerful tool for female talent.
Snow went on to become one of the first Black vocalists to expand her range beyond the standard tunes sung by African American jazz and blues singers. She recorded Broadway and American standards like Singing in the Rain, It Had to Be You, Maybe I’m to Blame, and Sing You Sinners, mixing in scatting and humming to create her own brand, her own sound. Snow’s voice, musical yet styled, holds up today; a kind of lyrical soul, forged decades before Motown. While I love a range of styles, I often crave a pure voice like Snow’s, light and haunting, yet filled with hope.
In 1924, Snow got her first big break, appearing in a musical created by the famed team Eubie Blake and Nobel Sissle, The Chocolate Dandies. While the Broadway production wasn’t a box office hit, it changed Valaida’s life in an unimaginable way, by introducing Snow to the most important friend of her life, Josephine Baker. As women of color striving in the corrosive world of entertainment, and in particular jazz, looking to break forms and barriers, the two fed one another creatively and spiritually for decades. Two years after they met, at Baker’s encouragement, Snow joined her in Europe.
They were not the first African American artists who fled American apartheid to France. Prompted by the stories of post World War I black GIs, others had headed to Paris where an expat black culture was born. According to Tyler Stovall, Professor of History at the University of California Berkeley, “In many ways, African Americans came to France as a sort of privileged minority, a kind of model minority, if you will—a group that benefited not only from French fascination with blackness, but a French fascination about Americanness.”
In the mid-eighties I joined the trail, taking my first independent design workshop outside of the United States. I was standing before a tall, pale Heathrow Airport customs agent; England lay just a few hundred feet beyond his desk. A blooming energy coursed in my stomach. The agent, a tall pale-skinned man, gripped my landing card, focusing on the inky blue script. I’d spent a considerable effort to complete it properly. Now uncertainty bloomed.
After some minutes he picked up a ballpoint pen from the white Formica desk and jabbed it against the card’s surface, in a successive, continuous, circular, almost violent motion. The pen stopped. He stared at the card, for a few moments, past the point of politeness, then leveled his eyes into mine. Flat. Dark. Unreadable. I stood there vexed with confusion, 3,500 miles from home. Was he not going to let me in?
He pressed the landing card across the desk, sliding it into the palm of my hand. As I examined it, his eyes seared into the crown of my head, waiting for me to discover, to notice, the section labeled “Nationality,” the term “Black American,” written in my hand, “Black” barely visible, now buried behind a blue blizzard of ink. The burrows of the roller ball were etched into the paper.
“I see,” I said. “Your country sees me as just an American?”
Behind his brown eyes I found a bruised kind of care and sadness, for my self- inflicted beliefs and for my innocence. I held to the warmth of his act, holding up the cue, holding to this moment, to the knowledge that after twenty-one years I finally felt fully American. This man, this England, had altered me before I’d nibbled my first cucumber sandwich, or sipped my first Lime and Lager beer. Europe was different.
Within the three weeks of study, I had discovered gems beyond the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and Design and Mark Rothko’s formidable Black-Form paintings in The Tate—in the pubs and dance clubs. There I found my blackness and my American accent was a currency, one I could trade in globally.
“When you get to London, promise me one thing,” my only African American professor at Parsons advised me. “If anyone invites you anywhere, go.”
I looked at Ivan Powell wide-eyed. He was big, broad, and bearded. As a small woman, my only defenses were my brains and base language.
“You mean go off with a stranger?!”
“I’m not saying you have sleep with them… just saying be open to new experiences.”
Ivan, a father figure and mentor, knew the world in wider, greater ways. We shared the same skin color, and I hoped to make my living from my creativity, just as he did. So my first Saturday night in London, I set out to follow his advice.
“Who knows if anyone will even approach us,” I told my two roommates, Teresa, a hip redhead from Baltimore, and Laurie, a petite, doe-eyed brunette from Layette, Louisiana.
“Well, I’m engaged,” Laurie said, “I’m not talking to any guys.”
“I will,” Teresa said, “but Jenine, since this is your idea, you need to start the talking.”
After an hour of hanging in The Hippodrome, it was clear, we had nothing to fear. Not one person had approached us, even to bum a cigarette, which we didn’t have anyway. Just as our threesome headed to the door, to the next club, two twenty-something, dark-haired, well-dressed men approached us.
“You guys aren’t going, are you? My cousin and I just got up nerve to come over. I’m Michael.”
They brought us drinks. We danced. We partied. The tall, lean cousin fancied Teresa. Michael talked more to me. But, in time, the alcohol burning through everyone’s stomach took over the conversation.
“Would you girls care to come home with us? We’ll make you breakfast,” the cousin said.
It’s true: everything sounds better with an English accent. Still, the invite frightened me. They were men. They were strangers. We were women in a foreign land. Just as a big fat no leapt to the launch pad of my tongue, I heard Ivan’s voice in my head.
Be open to new experiences.
“That sounds great. I’m starved,” I said.
We left the club. The guys hailed a taxi and we hopped in. Laurie grabbed one of the jump seats, the cousin the other. Michael sat beside the cab driver, while Teresa settled in beside me on the long seat in the rear and whispered, “Are you sure this is okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, leaving off the “I hope so” circling my mind.
The cab sped through the dark streets of London, for ten or so minutes, then came to a stop. As I slid outside, I recall thinking, kick up your Manhattan street smarts, look around, and then if things seem dodgy and dangerous, grab your girlfriends and take off running.
Cool June air jabbed at my cheeks. The sky was busy turning from cobalt to faint orange. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I realized we stood before rows of whitewashed homes, centuries old. Hyde Park trees hugged us from behind.
“Please come in,” Michael said. He grabbed my hand and headed up the steps to a broad house. Laurie and Teresa and Michael’s cousin followed. Inside, I discovered a well-appointed house, elegantly furnished, way beyond our modest Notting Hill Gate bed and breakfast accommodations.
“C’mon, the kitchen’s this way,” the cousin said.
Laurie leaned in and whispered, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing.”
Wood paneled rooms, thick carpets, plush antique furnishings? I couldn’t get past my shock to say that much.
Halfway through a wonderful breakfast of scrabbled eggs, poached tomato, buttered toast and strong coffee, my curiosity won out.
“Can I ask what you do for a living?”
Michael smiled. “Of course, we are in sheeping,” he said, his Greek accent now more prominent with the early morning hour.
“As in bah, bah?” I said, impersonating a sleep.
Michael gave a sly smile. He adjusted his black frame glasses and then placed his hand level to his chest.
“No. Shipping, as in boo, boo,” he said, squiggling his flattened hand through the air, mimicking an ocean liner cutting through the waves.
Laughter boomed across the room. Laurie looked at me with eyes that said, thank you for guiding us here. Thank you for believing. We’d made our first friends. We would share time with them and explore the city, off and on, until we boarded a plane for home, three weeks later.
Valaida and Josephine may have shared similar experiences. Perhaps the writer Richard Wright, the baritone Paul Robeson, and “The Black Maestro,” legendary jockey Jimmy Winkfield, did too. In the 1920s, black talent turned the continent that was once the cultural finishing school of the elite class into the premium experience for the black creative narrative. The results can be found in the world’s libraries and museums.
These currents blew Valaida Snow across the pond and into stardom. From 1926 to 1929, Snow toured with Jack Carter’s Serenaders, taking her talents as far as Shanghai, Singapore, Calcutta and Jakarta, then returned to join Baker touring through London and Paris with the Blackbirds of 1929. The production earned critical acclaim and fans for Baker and Snow.
My only inspiration is imagination and I’m ready to dream… wrote Snow in her lyricture “Imagination.” And the 1930s was, by far, Snow’s most productive time: she recorded her greatest hit High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm, then performed in the hit musical Rhapsody in Black on Broadway. Pianist Earl Hines, who witnessed Snow’s performance at the Sunset Café in the late 1920s, remembers: “In her act she had seven different pairs of shoes set out in front, and she’d do a dance in each of them: soft shoes, adagio shoes, tap shoes, Dutch clogs, and I don’t know what else, but last of all Russian boots. She’d do a chorus in each, and end on the tap number… she tapped just like Bojangles… She broke up the house every time.”
In 1934, Valaida Snow had one of her biggest career achievements, headlining at the London Coliseum. The public was in awe of her bold, brash jazz trumpet style. She was confident and clear, blasting out notes, with her trumpet held high. During that decade, she recorded more than forty titles in England, Sweden and Denmark, along with her most notable hit, I Wish I Were Twins, and appeared in two French films, titled L’Alibi and Pieges.
Around 1936, Valaida returned to Chicago with the Earl Hines Orchestra, receiving great reviews, then moved on to New York City to headline at the Apollo Theater. Valaida Snow’s talents were now celebrated on two continents. Snow headed to Hollywood and made two feature films, Irresistible You and Take It From Me, in September 1936, then returned to Europe to tour with Ken Johnson and His Emperors. It was then that Snow received word of a special command performance for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. Afterward the performance, the Queen presented Snow with a gold-plated trumpet.
Just as Snow’s talents were blowing away Denmark audiences, Josephine Baker was lighting up Parisian theaters and the town itself with talk of her penchant for walking the Champs-Elysées with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, adorned with a bedazzled diamond collar. They were African American women who were on fire, and most of the world craved their heat.
In 1937, Snow played The Hague, in Berlin, then toured Zurich, Vienna, and Stockholm. The following year, she briefly returned to Britain for additional recording sessions, and then headed to Paris. In August of 1939, backstage in a Parisian nightclub, Snow’s co-star Maurice Chevalier shared news of a rising Nazi threat and urged Snow to return to the States.
Did Snow think her stardom could protect her? Did she believe Americans were exempt from the Nazi terror? What we do know is: Snow moved deeper into Europe, not out. She performed in Holland, then at the National-Scala in Copenhagen. Her popular recordings made for such a successful two-week run that management extended Snow to nearly seven weeks.
When Josephine Baker learned of her friend’s prolonged gig, back in France, she tried to warn her friend. Snow learned about the changing sentiment in cosmopolitan Paris and the warning from the French Consulate urging American expats to return to the United States. Baker was busy planning her escape and pleaded with Snow to do the same. But as Baker fled to her home, Château des Milandes, in the south of France, and then on to North Africa, Snow headed deeper into Scandinavia, for concert commitments and bookings. Four months later, she hit a whiteout.
* * *
More than seventy years later, scholars still debate what happened to Snow during her disappearance. Some believe Snow was incarcerated for drug use, as her manager had been convicted and deported back to the States over the same charge, although he had not been jailed. Jayna Brown, author of Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, maintains that Snow stayed in Denmark deliberately and that she told reporters that she had been imprisoned in a Nazi camp following the advice of her agent, who was preparing the ground for her return to the States.
However, other historians, such as Mark Miller, author of High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life of Valaida Snow, believe Snow was one of a small group of African Americans held in the Nazi camps, although her name has never appeared in any prison records. Scholars also maintain that Denmark had no concentration camps within its borders, and thus Snow’s claims of being interned in the Vestre-Faengsel or Axis camp had to be false.
In May 1942, Snow made landfall into the port of Jersey City, stepping off the S.S. Gripsholm, a Swedish ocean liner. Ocean travel was the reality TV of the last mid-century. Reporters staked out arriving ships for celebrities trying to avoid scandal, the rich returning from adventures and anything else in between. The reporters waiting for a story were ready for Snow. “Now that I have returned to my native land, I want you to know that I am with America, in America and for America and this time I intend to stay right here,” she told them.
Valaida had not stood on American soil in close to six years. According to the reporters, she was “weary, sick, weighing seventy-six pounds, down from her normal weight of hundred and thirty-eight,” with “twenty cents” in her pocket, and “scars covering her body.” Her time away had levied a high price: Snow’s mother had died without knowing her daughter’s whereabouts.
Snow managed to find Jack Carter, the bandleader with whom she had toured across Asia in the 1920s. Carter, now a tavern owner, at first did not recognize Snow. Then he went into action. He placed Snow in a private sanitarium, where she remained for ten weeks, under a doctor’s care.
Once released, Snow reconnected to an old friend, Earle Edwards, who took up the task of caring for her. A year later they were married and Edwards became her manager. Snow returned to performing, trying to find her way back to her source. It was 1943. America was busy incubating Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Elvis. In a decade, her style of music would vanish.
Four years later, Earl Hines, who had toured and been in love with Snow, crossed paths with her at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. He did not recognize her. Snow’s legendary beauty had faded, although some maintained Valaida Snow was still a great talent that could still amaze. For the next decade, Valaida Snow kept traveling throughout the United States and Canada, booking gigs, and working where she could. She and her husband permanently relocated from Manhattan to Los Angeles in hopes of finding more work. They never returned to Europe.
* * *
It’s rumored that throughout her career, Valaida Snow pilfered silverware from every great restaurant, hotel and train dining car across Europe. While fans knew her face from her recordings, Maître d’s had her image for different reasons. I understand that this was thievery. But I also call it marking an occasion. I know. Snow and I share the same affliction.
My swag includes an ashtray from The Russian Tearoom in Manhattan; another from The Hotel George V in Paris during a stay while Michael Jackson was under the same roof. A horde of fans cornered me just beyond the marbled entrance, assuming, from my American accent and the hue of my skin, that I was a part of the megastar’s entourage.
I also lifted a silver teaspoon from the Plaza Hotel, a demitasse from the Waldorf Astoria, and twin cups and saucers from an Italian tourist farm where I sipped a cappuccino under a wisteria-covered arbor, high in the mountains, the air saturated by the scent of waist high lavender. The objects were mementos of the great times that I spent in those grand places, moments that I did not want to end. I clung to portable tokens. And after every big event, morning coffee in hand, I’d peer inside my purse, curious and cowering at what lay inside.
I think Snow was the same, just on a grander scale. Europe was one big, bountiful banquet, one that a girl from Tennessee just did not know how to walk away from, lacking the skill of finding smaller pleasures within Americas’ borders. It took motherhood for me find some pleasure in local ports. That is not to say that I don’t crave the moments that Europe gave me, daily. I miss feeling that I was a beautiful woman because of my brown hue, not in spite of it.
James Baldwin, who left the U.S. for Paris in 1948, and died in Saint Paul de Vence, France, sixty-three years later said “African-Americans discover in Paris the terms by which they can define themselves. It’s the freedom to work beyond the assumptions of what we can and can’t do as African-Americans. It’s a different rhythm and pace. We can imagine ourselves in new ways in that space.”
Beyond the love Valaida had for her mother, America never evoked a sense of home for her, even though it first celebrated her as “Little Louis.” Europe was where she felt her most beautiful, and her most honored. She couldn’t give up Europe, even at the threat of her life. Europe was her life.
The dull ache that settles in when I board an international flight for home becomes a metallic sadness that sears my stomach. Someday, like Baldwin, I want to write from there, make my life there. Someday. But for now I have a daughter to raise, an income to earn.
On May 8, 1956, after her final curtain call at The Palace Theater on Broadway, Valaida Snow suffered a cerebral hemorrhage backstage. She was rushed to King’s County Hospital and fell into a coma. Twenty-two days after she last slipped from the spotlight, Valaida Snow departed this world, and was buried on the same day she entered, her birthday, June 2. She was fifty-one. There was no recorded mention of what music was featured at her funeral.