Vilaida Snow: Forgotten Genius!
A virtuoso trumpeter / conductor who performed with the greatest male bands
This Lady Could Do It All!
In her memoir about the world of American show business doing the golden age of Hollywood, the famous actress Maureen O’Hara said the producers were always looking for performers who were “triple threats,” meaning they could sing, dance and act. However she forgot to mention the fact that the performer also had to be white. This is the only logical explanation as to why Valaida Snow was not the greatest star of the era, for she was a triple threat and more. None of the white stars of the Hollywood musical extravaganzas could match her talent.
In his book “The World of Earl Hines,” one of a series of books by the indefatigable British Jazz historian Stanley Dance, in which Jazz musicians tell us in their own words about their life and work, there are some poignant descriptions of Valaida Snow told by the great pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines. One of the greatest figures of twentieth century American music, a major innovator on the piano, and a seminal figure in the development of the modern complex Afro-American instrumental art music popularly known as “Jazz,” Hines performed in every type of venue imaginable. Thus he is as reliable an eyewitness as we are likely to find; an unimpeachable source.
“Valaida was very versatile and very musical” Hines recalls. “She could sing, dance and produce a show. She could play trumpet, violin and piano…She had all the physical attractions one could want in a girl, and she made a heck of an impression. All this came out after she had begun working at the Sunset, and I thought she was the greatest girl I had ever seen.” Hines went on to describe her performance, “In her act she had seven different pairs of shoes set out 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.” Hines went on to tell us: “She’d do a chorus in each, and on on the tap number she tapped just like Bojangles.”
Now, that’s a hell of a claim, since Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was unquestionably the greatest tap dancer in the world at the time…and arguably is the most influential figure in the history of tap dancing. All of the great masters in the complex Afro-American art of rhythm tap dancing – whose complex rhythms influenced some of the greatest drummers in the jazz tradition, as Professor Jacqui Malone ably documents in her seminal text “Steppin on the Blues” – pay homage to Bojangles as the patron saint of their art. Including the peerless Sammy Davis Jr. And since Earl Hines played for Bojangles’ many times – often as his sole accompaniment since “Bo” didn’t really like to use drummers because they often interfered with the complicated rhythms he was tapping out – Hines had an intimate knowledge of Robinson’s art.
Hence when he compared Valaida’s performance to Bojangles, this was no picayune matter: it was nothing less than a sensational compliment. And he is not the only one who was astonished by her dancing skills. “Louis Armstrong had a fit when he saw her,” Hines tells us. ‘”Boy I never saw anything that great’ he told me. She broke up the house every time.” Hines said. However Louie Armstrong grew up in the flourishing show business world of New Orleans and had worked in Chicago, and New York, not to mention the countless performances he had played in every section of the country; so he had seen plenty!
A Dancer’s Dancer
No ordinary Hoofer
Hines had witnessed all the major acts in American show business strut their stuff – white and black – but since most of the biggest white acts were employing Afro-American cultural forms as the basic ingredients of their act, once you saw the black acts you had seen the state of the art. This had been true since the end of the 19th century, but even before that, ever since the rise of black faced minstrelsy performed by white Americans in burnt cork during the 1840’s and becoming the most popular form of theatrical performance throughout the balance of the 1800s, but minstrelsy was mostly parody of black culture.
By the turn of the century, with the rise of Ragtime music and the Cake Walk, Afro-American music and dance reigned supreme. That’s why the presence of famous white performers at black performance venues was common fare and is mentioned in virtually every account of the period. In a fascinating reflection on the 1890’s contained in his classic memoir of blacks in New York City, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson describes the rich creative milieu at the Marshall Hotel – a black owned hotel and nightclub located in the “Tenderloin District” on the West side of Manhattan in the 50’s. This area was also known as “Black Bohemia” because so many Afro-American artists resided there. Performers of all kind stayed at the Marshall, especially musicians, and they performed in the club. Hence Johnson tells us that white performers were always in the audience “looking for Negro stuff” to incorporate in their acts.
So thorough was the wholesale pillage of Afro-America’s cultural storehouse by white performers seeking material for their blackface “coon shows,” that the great Afro-American vaudevillian team, Bert Williams and George Walker, billed their act “Too Real Coons,” when they got together in San Francisco during 1893. Although they were on the other side of the continent they encountered the same situation as that described by Johnson in New York.
A great poet, lyricist, librettist, lawyer, and diplomat who would become the first black Executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson was no ordinary witness. An early twentieth American Renaissance Man, Johnson, in collaboration with his composer brother J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole, a gifted tunesmith and choreographer, wrote a series of musical revues that contributed to the formation of the Broadway musical, and were also among the principal creators of the American popular song with hits like “Under the Bamboo Tree” and patriotic songs such as “Rally round the Flag Boys.” As a savvy lawyer as well as a creative artist, it is not surprising that James Weldon was also a founder of ASCAP – American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers- the principal agency that protects the royalty rights of musicians today.
And the evidence of Johnson’s charge of white cultural pilfering is everywhere. From Paul Whiteman being acclaimed the “King of Jazz” in the 1920’s, to Bennie Goodman being promoted as The King Of Swing, in the 1940’s, to Elvis Pressley being declared the “King of Rock and Roll” in the 1950’s and 60’s, to John Travolta and the Bee Gee’s becoming the “Kings of Disco,” to Slim Shady being dubbed the Master poet of Hip Hop.
What all of these acts have in common is that they built acts based on Afro-American cultural ingredients, yet they made more money than the black creators because of institutionalized racism – which throughout the 19th century and most of the twentieth century, barred black acts from performing in many of the most lucrative venues. This allowed white performers to get away with performing mediocre versions of Afro-American -Acts to all white audience that had never seen the real thing…and get fabulously rich and famous doing it.
This fact does much to explain why the most talented female performer of the period is a forgotten figure in the history of American performing arts. Although she was a big star in her time in the black community, she never received her just recognition in the world of American show business at large. And she is still denied her proper place in the American cultural pantheon, due to a general ignorance of the role of race in shaping American popular culture abetted by cultural and gender chauvinism practiced by Euro-Americans males and men in general. Hence Valaida suffered from a double whammy: racism and sexism.
When we consider the fact that Valaida Snow was as good a singer as a dancer, plus a virtuoso on several instruments that have nothing in common – string, brass and keyboard – she was arguably not only the greatest woman performer in American show business…but the greatest performer of her time male or female. Her versatility was astounding.
Valaida as Headliner
Master of Several Arts
Earl Hines tells us:
“After the Sunset closed she went on the road and was in several big shows. The last time I saw here before she came back to Chicago again, she was with Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake in a show called “Rhapsody in Black.” They had about thirty musicians and she conducted the whole band in the first part of the show. Then she had her own spot, and after that she did a number with the Berry Brothers.”
Musicians like Sissle and Blake, and dancers such as the Berry Brothers, were among the best in American show business. The fact that Valaida was performing with them is further evidence of her multi-talented genius.
Sissle and Blake in 1926
They wrote and performed all kinds of Music including Broadway shows
Nobel Sissle and Hubie Blake were great song writers who penned hit songs, at a time when the music business was in transition from an industry largely based on the sale of sheet music to one based on record sales. And many of their most popular tunes originated in Broadway musicals they wrote. For instance the tune “I’m Just Wild about Harry” was introduced in their hit Broadway musical “Shufflin Along” in 1922, and became so popular that it was adopted as Harry Truman’s campaign song in his run for the presidency almost thirty years later. And the Berry Brothers was one of the premier tap dance acts. Insofar as show business was concerned, Valaida was “moving in high cotton” as the old folks used to say when I was a boy in Florida.
Sheet Music for….
The Smash hit
The Berry Brothers
A Fabulous Dance Team
Although Valaida Snow was excluded from exhibiting her talents in many venues because of her beautiful tan skin by people suffering from “Whiteitis” – a bizarre malady that makes white people believe that the earth and all its bounty belongs exclusively to them, – there was a large black audience and she worked all the time entertaining them on the TOBA circuit. Again Earl Hines informs us “When the show finished Ed Fox got in touch with her and had her come to the Grand Terrace.”
This was a premiere nightclub in Chicago, a fabulous place that catered to an Afro-American audience, but Earl “Fatha” Hines’ orchestra was the house band and therefore people of all races and ethnicities who love great music was drawn to the spot….just as they had been draw to the music and posh ambience of the “Cabaret Du Champion,” the fabulous Chicago Nightclub owned by Jack Johnson, the first black heavy-weight champion of the world, a generation earlier.
Earl “Fatha” Hines
Virtuoso Pianist and Bandleader
The great music also attracted Al Capone and his gang, who secretly took control of the club. Big Al loved the band and “Fata” Hines paints an intriguing portrait of his relationship with the famous Italian Gangster. “Along with so many of the bad traits people said Al Capone had, he had some good traits, too. He used to run a restaurant twenty fours a day where poor people could get free meals, and he took over real estate where these same poor people could move in and live. He used to come by the club at night, and if I met him at the door he might put his hand up and straighten my handkerchief, and there would be a hundred dollar bill. Or he might give me a handshake and put a twenty dollar bill in my hand.” From Hine’s descriptions here damned if Big Al don’t sound like Robin Hood.
A Contemporary Billboard
The Greatest Jazz Pianist In America?
This is the world that Valaida Snow entered when she took the gig at the Grand Terrace. And she was a smash! Fatha Hines tells us “I can’t remember who was headlining, but she came next after a great dance couple from Cuba. She was what we call an ingénue then, in front of the chorus. She sang The Very Thought Of You, and that kind of thing.” Hines was also impressed by her ability to deliver a song in character. “I always remember, too, how she used to sing Brother, Can you Spare a Dime She would come out all raggedy and wearing an old cap on her head. During the Depression she would break people up with that song.”
Anyone who has listened carefully to Yip Harbrough’s clever, biting and cynical lyrics cannot fail to recognize its sharp critique of the callous greed of the plutocrats. And the insightful observer can readily discern a class consciousness in the perspectives of Capone and Hines – the gangster and the artist. It seems clear that both were poor boys struggling to survive and thrive in a country with a rich ruthless chauvinistic WASP ruling class, who held lower class Italians in slightly less contemot than Afro-Americans, the best way they could.
And like jazz fans of all backgrounds, Capone dug Hine’s band. As it turns out, Valaida was not just a great performer at the Grand Terrace, but she quickly rose to producer of the show, which required her to bend both the gangsters and macho male musicians to her will. And she manipulated them as skillfully as she manipulated the keys of her trumpet.
After spending the summer months on tour with Valaiada Snow, Earl Hines was captivated by her talent and beauty and marveled at her polymorphic guise once they were back at the Grand Terrace. “When we came back,” Hinds recalls, “they were having trouble with producers and directors. ‘Valaida,’ Fox said ‘do you know anything about producing’ ‘sure’ she said. ‘I can put the show on for you.’” I guess Ed Fox, the owner of record, had seen enough of her versatility to suspect that she might be capable of doing anything in show business.
So Fox took a chance. “After all,” says Hines, “she could dance and she could sing and she knew what to do. She put that show together herself. She saved him an awful lot of money, too, because whenever a new show went on there had to be a lot of new arrangements for it. She was so talented she picked out numbers from the bands book that could be used, memorized them, and hummed or scatted them to the chorus. Then when we came in the rehearsals were very short, because the girls already knew the band’s routines. Bubbling over was one of the numbers she produced. Beer and wine had come back after prohibition, and that was the inspiration for the song. She always knew what she wanted and nobody could fool her.” In reading Hine’s reminiscences about Valaida, one should remember that these extravagant accolades are coming from a great artists working at the apex of show business.
Despite living in a country whose ruling ideology was white supremacy, enduring constant insults intended to enforce the myth of white superiority, and barred from displaying her genius in the major entertainment emporiums of her native land, Valaida was nevertheless a star in her world “behind the veil” as Dr. Dubois described the segregated world of black America, and she lived like one. “She had a Mercedes and a chauffeur,” says Hines, “and she used to send him to pick me up and take me home…She used to dress luxuriously and look very, very glamorous. She was just a beautiful and exceptionally talented woman.”
Valaida As Featured Trumpet soloist
A Beautiful and Exceptionally Talented Woman
As an instrumentalist Valaida Snow was top shelf, a bonafide member of the Jazz virtuosi that shaped the art during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed her virtuosity was seemingly preordained. Born into a family of musicians in Chattanooga Tennessee in 1903, she showed an early talent for music. Hence aside from the three instruments she was playing when Earl Hines met her – piano, violin and trumpet – her mother taught her to play the cello, mandolin, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet and saxophone. She was a gifted musician indeed.
Her broad knowledge of music and not only propelled her to the top ranks of instrumental performers during a golden age of show business before television when people went out to see live performances, and before the disco replaced the dance hall bands with recorded music. It was a period when there were more famous instrumentalists than singers. Hence you had to be sharp on your axe or you would be cut from the band in the Darwinian world of the Jazz orchestra.
The great William “Count” Basie describes the cut throat competition among musicians for chairs in the great bands of the era in his autobiography “Good Morning Blues,” written in collaboration with Albert Murray, a brilliant writer and jazz critic who danced to those bands in his youth. To illustrate the point Basie tells a story about being slightly late to the band stand and hearing another guy playing his butt off in his piano seat. He didn’t have to listen long to recognize that his goose was cooked; he went right over to the club owner and asked for a job as a valet parking the cars of the guests.
Valaida Conducting the Boys
The Lady who Swings the Band
Thus in assessing Valaida Snow’s musicianship it is enough to know that during her career she played with the Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and Earl Hines, and along with Blanche Calloway – whose pioneering career I shall examine in a future essay – was the first woman to conduct a male orchestra, to recognize her outsize talent as a musician. She was so admired by her fellow musicians she was featured as a soloist with major white bands on occasion.
Had it not been for the racial taboos and gender discrimination of American society at the time, those bands might well have been fighting over her. After all, aside from being beautiful and could sing and dance, she was so good as a trumpet soloist her nickname was “Little Louie” because she had a big sound like Louis Armstrong – the father of jazz trumpet, who called her “the world’s second best trumpet player.”
Although for most of her career Valaida performed in black nightclubs and theaters like New York’s Apollo, Chicago’s Regal, the Howard in Washington and the Earl theater in Philly; the so-called “chittlin circuit.” She also appeared in Broadway shows, like “Chocolate Dandies,” written by Sissle and Blake, where she was also required to act. And like many great Afro-American performing artists, her friend Josephine Baker topping the list as the toast of Paris – she was a sensation in Europe as an instrumentalist and in Musical theater. She even hung out socially with European aristocrats.
A tragic event occurred in her life during one of her many European forays in the early forties that shattered Valaida’s career. While concertizing with her all-female orchestra in Denmark, she was arrested by the Nazi’s on morals and drug charges and sent to Wester-Faengle, concentration camp for two years during 1940-42. Incredibly, Valaida was the victim of the motion of history; she was caught up in the swirl of world events.
As a sexually liberated black female jazz musician who appeared to be batting from both sides of the plate, liked getting high and playing around with white girls; she was viewed as a menace by the NAZI Gestapo – those murderous thugs entrusted with enforcing the objectives of the Third Reich. And for blond Aryan women the Nazi objective for them was to produce pure Aryan warriors to serve the Thousand Year Reich. Thus they dispised any sign of lesbianism or race mixing.
It appears that Valaida was oblivious to the political situation she was in. Although it is hard to imagine how that could be so naive, the great Afro-American novelist John A. Williams imagined it in marvelous detail in “Clifford’s Blues,” his gripping and insightful novel about a gay black American jazz instrumentalist and singer who gets arrested on morals charges – drugs and homosexuality – and sentenced to imprisonment in a concentration camp. ( see my review under the “book Review” section )
Williams uses this story to explore the entire question of sex, race and culture in Nazi Germany. It is such a finely told tale that I would recommend it to anybody who would like to experience vicariously what Valaida’s experience might have been like. Clifford, whose story is the raison d’etre of this finely realized novel, was having such a great time in Weimar Berlin – where cocaine could be purchased from the newspaper vendors, gay nightclubs flourished, and his black complexion only enhanced the attractiveness of his talent. Cliff was the toast of the gay scene in Berlin and everybody wanted a piece of his dark meat.
Hence when he saw those crazy guys in brown shirts running around the place harassing Jews he was just glad that for once it wasn’t black people getting the shaft and went about his business. It wasn’t until he was nabbed by the Nazi’s that he really notice how much things had changed for a gay black musician playing inferior “jungle music” in Germany. This tale bears such an uncanny resemblance to Valaida’s story that I am compelled to wonder if that’s where John A. Williams got the idea.
Like Clifford, I’d bet Valaida was equally clueless about the political situation in Denmark at the time – since this had been one of the most sexually and racially liberal countries in the world before the Nazi invasion. It is the ultimate irony that in liberal Denmark Valaida should encounter, and be victimized by, a master race theory the Nazi’s imported from the US – a consequence of Adolph Hitler becoming obsessed with the racial theories proffered by American Eugenicist Madison Grant, in his racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race.” At some point she must have recognized the similarity between the Nazi attitudes toward Jews and the attitude of the white south toward her on people. That’s why she, and millions of other Afro-Americans, fled the south.
Valaida’s experience in the Nazi concentration camp wrecked her physically and psychologically; she was never the same performer again. Already in middle age, she was unable to fully retrieve her artistic prowess, although she continued to perform in various venues until the 1950’s, when she toured with a group called “The Honey Drippers,” who were pioneers in a new music that would soon sweep the world: Rhythm & Blues. On May 30, 1956, while in New York City, Valaida finally danced and joined the musical Gods.
View A New and Wonderful Documentary on Vilaida
Double Click on link below
Watch Valaida in Perform in a French movie
Watch her perform on a soundie
View and interesting video on Valaida Snow
Valaida with Ellington’s Orchestra singing caravan and taking a trumpet solo
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 14, 2013