If you were an inmate in a Nazi run prison in occupied Denmark, patience and fortitude would be two handy virtues to have in your possession. If you were a black female jazz trumpet player, you would probably be looked at as the worst sort of perpetrator of degenerate art. It could only be worse if you were a black female jazz trumpet player, a drug addict and a Jew. I'm fairly certain that Valaida Snow was not Jewish. The story of her imprisonment, which makes for exciting press, is apocryphal. Author and researcher Jayna Brown in her book Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern claims that Snow stayed in wartime Denmark by choice and that the story of her imprisonment was a press generating ploy invented by her management to set the stage for her return to America. Mark Miller's biography High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm: The Life of Valaida Snow also dismantles the fictions of her life and paints a portrait of a talented performer, albeit one that didn't shy from stretching the truth to suit her needs for a bit of play in the press. Her stories at the time, true or not, certainly did make for good fodder. What is undeniably true and plainly on display in films and on recordings is that Ms. Snow was a fine singer, dancer, and trumpet player.
Known variously as the "Queen of the Trumpet" or "Little Louis," Valaida Snow became a professional performer at a young age. Appearing in numerous musical revues in the '20s and '30s she danced, sang and wowed audiences when she stepped forward and took a hot trumpet solo. Pianist Mary Lou Williams offered a sideways compliment: “She was hitting those high C's just like Louis. She would have been a great trumpet player if she had dropped the singing and dancing, and concentrated on the trumpet.”
In the late 1920s, Snow would take her talents a little further than the well-worn roads of the black entertainment circuit in America. After performing in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Calcutta, and other cities and countries in the Far East, she would wind up in Europe for various tours throughout the 1930s. All of this traveling would be tempered with return engagements to the States and a few roles in some Hollywood films. Ms. Snow was, as they say, working it.
From vaudeville to musical theater and cabaret, from pop to jazz and on into the inchoate world of rhythm and blues, Snow's tenure in music lasted long enough to touch on all of these styles. Her star did not shine as brightly after the war, with claims that she was never the same emotionally and physically after her incarceration, but she worked steadily, performing and cutting records right up to her death in 1956. Intrigue and deceptions aside, the life of Valaida Snow is worth investigation as one of the early female musicians in a male-dominated jazz world.