Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Notes on Valaida Snow

These days, even in jazz circuit, anyone hardly remembers the lady who supposed to be the "female  Louis Armstrong", a lady with an incredible life story which begins in Harlem cabarets and ends up in a German prison in occupied Denmark.

Valaida Snow (1904-1956) was a singer, dancer, and trumpet player (also occasionally playing violin, cello, bass, guitar, accordion, harp, banjo). For short spells, a member of Count Basie and Earl Hines bands, she started touring Europe since late 1920s and recorded many sides in London. In early 1940s, during her stay in Denmark, she was imprisoned by Nazis in Copenhagen and after 18 months of "hard labor" in a camp, she was exchanged with some German prisoners held in the hand of Americans. After returning to US, she resumed her career but didn't have a long life.

There is already one informative mini-documentary about her, available online, so I'm not going to do more musing about her life. The main reason behind remembering her in this post was seeing her performing in a French film from 1939, the last days of peace in Europe. The film is Pièges, directed by German-Jewish emigre Robert Siodmak who later made many classic film noirs in Hollywood (among them Killers, Criss Cross). In this scene from Pièges, Snow performs My sweetheart, accompanied by Freddie Johnson on piano.

But if being a historian from any type - jazz or cinema - carries just one great lesson that justifies a life spent on the things pf the past, that is to be the constructive power of 'doubt' in research. In Valaida Snow's case, let's see what's Jayna Brown perspective in Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern.

According to Brown, in December 1940, eight months into the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Snow was not only free, but in no harass, and sipping coffee in the Hotel Sanders in Copenhagen, giving an interview to the provincial newspaper Randers Amtsavis. Brown believes that Valaida Snow "stayed" in Denmark by her own choice, and the story of being a prisoner is absolutely a myth.

When she returned to New York, she claimed in a very well propagandized press coverage, "a story of internment in a Nazi concentration camp, of  starvation, torture, and frequent whippings". According to the Amsterdam News on April 10, 1943, Snow was supposedly "the only colored woman entertainer on record to have been interned a Nazi concentration camp." Brown argues the Amsterdam News article was designed by Snow's manager to garner attention for her come-back show. Nothing more.

Myth or reality, the story of Snow reappeared in popular culture in various forms: two unfruitful film projects (one with Diana Ross) which never came to production; a short story; and recently, a novel by Candace Allen.

When legend becomes the fact, print the legend, said that newspaperman who heard the true story of the man who shot Liberty Valance.


  1. Hi, Ehsan.

    You should read Mark Miller's Valaidia biography "High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm".

  2. I am doing a show on Valaida Snow for SFJazz next week in San Francisco (talking about Blanche Calloway too!) - this is welcome video of her in action!

    Thank you!
    She (and Blanche) was a pioneering woman who should not go quietly into the lost dark of history!


  3. Amanda, is there any way to listen to your lecture online?

  4. Just a quick note to those who doubt Valaida's claim of incarceration, I have copies of her prison records! Sometimes people do speak the truth.

    1. Earl Hines, as her lover, confirms the prison sentences too, if you check Stanley Dance's book. Very complicated matter!

  5. Dear Anonymous,

    Show us.

    Warm Regards, Missouri