Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The Age of a Jazzwoman: Valaida Snow, 1900-1956

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The Age of a Jazzwoman: Valaida Snow, 1900-1956

Article excerpt

When, in 1939, Adolph Hitler ordered the High Commander of the German Army to prepare the offensive of the West, the threat of war encouraged many brothers and sisters living abroad to return to the United States. Mabel Mercer, an entertainer living in Paris, sailed to Florida. Valaida Snow, on the other hand, a jazzwoman and famous trumpeter, lingered on the Continent. Before emigrating to Paris, she performed in the Far East, the Middle East, throughout Europe where fans called her "Queen of the Trumpet,"(1) and in the United States. In America, where millions of Americans belonged to the Ku Klux Klan,(2) exposure to discrimination made Valaida acutely aware of the despair a color conscious government offered its non-white citizens. Valaida, however, challenged the limitations of prejudice and advanced beyond its boundaries.

A celebrity, and internationally recognized jazzwoman, Valaida achieved the recognition and social status rarely given to black women and men. She fought bigotry and refused to be pushed out as the German onslaught intensified, and remained in Paris, traveling to a variety of European countries. A vivacious and courageous woman, Valaida surmounted many of the barriers created to keep her race and sex at a disadvantage. She lived a distinguished life in a unique era; attention to her life and career is long overdue.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on June 2 about 1900,(3) Valaida lived through the first and second world wars. During World War I she spent much of her youth in the South - the "Land of Dixie." At the time, Chattanooga, which lies near the border of Georgia on the sharp Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River,(4) forbade black men and women from drinking at white water fountains, eating in white restaurants, or sitting in white seats. Children of African descent reared in this era, found it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the cruel racism of Jim Crow. As a child prodigy with perfect pitch, who may have started to perform as early as four years of age,(5) Valaida was no exception. In Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman's Journey Home, Gloria Wade-Gayles describes the experience of a young black woman growing up in the South during this period of American history. She writes about her life in the early decades of the twentieth century in Memphis, Tennessee.

I can see myself, in an attractive dress and with a fresh hairdo, beside one of my 'beaus,' as Mama called them, in a starched shirt and tie, walking up fifteen flights of stairs at the Malco. White girls, ushered by white boys, entered through the shiny brass front doors and stepped on the thick carpet of the foyer beneath large chandeliers. We entered through a small door on the back side of the theater near the Mississippi River and the Bluff City Fish Market. The combined odors of dead fish rotting on the muddy river bank and cleaned fish lying on white ice overpowered the expensive fragrance I wore. There was no foyer for us. No carpet. No chandeliers.(6)

Courage, talent, and ambition helped Valaida leave the confines of the South and her home town. After gaining some experience in local clubs, she made her professional debut singing and dancing in Atlantic City and Philadelphia in the 1920s, about the same time that jazz emerged. Valaida also began to play her trumpet, professionally, during this period, although it was socially unacceptable for women to play wind instruments. Society discouraged ladies from playing masculine instruments such as the trombone, trumpet, coronet, saxophone, or any other wind instrument. Tradition dictated they become concert pianists, a career that, supposedly, preserved their femininity. The bias became so entrenched that nearly thirty years after Valaida began to play the trumpet, Down Beat magazine acknowledged its existence in a 1951 article. Lorraine Cugat (Mrs. Xavier), wife of musician Eddie Cugat, said . . . "Girls who want to be musicians should stick to instruments such as piano, violin, harp, or even accordian - any instrument that the playing of which doesn't detract from their feminine appeal. …

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