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Valaida Snow - Jazz's Lady Louis
Valaida Snow was one of the most energetic and hard- working women in the show business world. Often referred to as "The Female Louis Armstrong", she proved herself to be a multi-talented entertainer. Her mother taught her to play several musical instruments including violin, banjo, cello, bass, mandolin, accordion, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and harp. Valaida Snow was admired not only for her beauty but for her powerhouse performances, sweet singing voice and her ability to please the audience. As a lady of jazz, she was far ahead of her time.
Valaida Snow was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on June 2, 1905. She was raised with three sisters and one brother in a musical family. Her father was a performer and her mother had studied music at Howard University. Valaida was a natural entertainer. At a young age she could sing, dance, compose and play music like a pro. All three of her sisters and her brother became professional singers as well. By the time Valaida was fifteen, she was performing professionally in short tours around the United States. It was at this point that she decided to concentrate her talents on the trumpet and singing.
Valaida Snow's career took off without a hitch. In 1924, she landed the role of Manda in a Sissle and Blake production called In Bamville. It was renamed The Chocolate Dandies when it opened in New York in September of that year. From there she began an international career that continued most of her life. She was off to London to record with the Blackbirds and continued on to China where she was very popular. Finally returning to the United States, she headlined in Los Angeles and Chicago but soon rejoined the Blackbirds in Paris. Valaida also played in Liza all across Europe and in Russia. By the early 1930s, she was performing in New York in the Ethel Waters Show, Rhapsody in Black. Not one to stay put very long, Valaida travelled back and forth between Europe and the United States with her husband Ananais Berry of the Berry Brothers dancing troupe. She also did more shows and films in the Far East.
Personal Life -
Valaida Snow's personal life was a colorful as her career. She led the dramatic life of a star. Her marriage to Ananais Berry was challenged by his parents who did everything they could to discredit Snow. Their objection was rooted in their age difference - Valaida was in her 30's and Ananais was under the age of 20. The parents finally managed to find fodder for publicly shaming Valaida when they discovered she had been married two times before. They filed bigamy charges against her. She suffered through alcoholism, drug abuse and attempted suicides. She received much attention from the press. Still, she seemed to enjoy the attention and she was as flamboyant in her personal life as she was on stage. She was known and admired for her extravagant lifestyle. She wore bright orchid colored clothes, drove expensive cars and made sure both her pet monkeys and driver wore the same matching orchid outfits. Valaida Snow was a brave woman. She broke into a male dominated world of trumpet playing and excelled at it despite resentment.
While she was touring with an all female band in Denmark in 1941, Valaida was arrested by the Nazis. She was likely sent to Vestre Faengsel, a prison in Copenhagen run by the Nazis. There is much speculation as to the reason or reasons for her arrest. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, allegedly was in the possession of drugs and she was African-American. Some believe that Valaida's close friendship with German female musicians gave the Nazis the ill-conceived idea that she was a lesbian. Nazis disdained the thought because they believed that a woman's job was to bear Aryan children and further their cause. No matter what the reason, Valaida remained in prison for almost two years. She was finally released in May, 1942 in a prisoner exchange deal. She returned to the United States weighing a mere sixty-eight pounds. After some rehabilitation she remarried and began to perform again. But Valaida was never the same. She died backstage in New York on May 30, 1956.
Louis Armstrong greatly admired Valaida Snow. He once said that Valaida Snow was the second best trumpet player in the world (after himself).
She could speak seven languages.
Valaida had the unusual ability to write down music as she was listening to it. She was an astute composer.
She was friends with Josephine Baker. She never acquired the fame of Ms. Baker possibly because she spent so much time overseas.
Several books have been written about Valaida Snow. They include -
Valaida by John Edgar Wideman (1989)- She appears as a fictional character.
Valaida by Candace Allen (2004) -Based on Valaida Snow's life story.
High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow (2007) - biography