By the time she was in her twenties, trumpeter, singer, and dancer Valaida Snow had performed for audiences all over the world. From Broadway to Burma, from Shanghai to Singapore, she achieved tremendous success abroad with her extraordinary versatility and her unprecedented and show-stopping talent. And as an African American woman in a male-dominated cultural industry, Snow
turned the prescriptions of gender upside down. To wit, anything that men did, Valaida did too, simply as a matter of course. She played trumpet at a time when there were few precedents in jazz for a woman to do so. She travelled around the world before she was 25. She led orchestras and produced shows before she was 30.
So notes jazz historian Mark Miller in his compelling new biography of Snow (1904–56), suggesting that her life experiences and performance career offer a telling commentary not only on the race and gender politics of African American women performers living and working abroad, but also on the role that this all-but-forgotten figure played in helping to carry forward the ideas of jazz being pioneered by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and others to cities and sites where they had scarcely been heard before. [End Page 423]
Although Snow remains a relatively neglected and unknown figure, what does survive in the generally accepted narratives about her life, suggests Miller, tends to be based not on the historical record but on (often egregious) embellishments and exaggerations promulgated both by media-generated accounts and, on those rare occasions when she would deign to give interviews or to provide first-hand accounts of her life, by Valaida Snow herself. According to Miller, one of the most egregious examples of myth-making that surrounded Snow’s life had to do with the claim that she was imprisoned and placed in a concentration camp by the Nazis during the Second World War, a claim that continues to get reproduced in present-day accounts. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that there are novels based on Snow’s life, especially given the extent to which interpretation about the very ‘facts’ of her life (was she, as Miller encourages us to ask, a survivor, a victim, or an opportunist?) continues to be up for grabs. Miller, of course, is not writing fiction; rather, he is careful both to correct the historical record (beginning with the date of Snow’s birth), and also to show us, by example, that the Valaida Snow of his biography makes for as interesting and absorbing a tale as the sensationalized versions of Snow popularized by myth.
Meticulously researched and scrupulously crafted, Miller’s text draws on surviving sources of the day (including his own original interviews) to expose the contradictions and controversies that surrounded Snow’s life. Amid the gossip and the scandal that plagued her career, there is, as Miller makes clear, a factual story here that unfolds with dramatic flair and intensity: ‘[E]ven after Valaida Snow’s life has been clarified to the extent possible from the historical record,’ he writes, ‘it remains a grand and compelling tale, and Valaida herself no less a grand and compelling figure. Indeed . . . she is as fabulous a success as fact as she has been as a form of fiction.’
If the standard accounts of Snow’s life offer both an inaccurate and an impoverished rendering, then High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm might be understood as an argument for the significance of the ‘truth’ of history. Now ‘truth,’ as Miller well knows, remains particularly elusive in the case of Snow, who ‘left her prospective biographer very little with which to work.’ At an institutional moment when cultural forms have sought to contest and interrogate the viability of evidence-based forms of history-making in favour of alternative archives and models of inquiry, it is this elusive quality in Snow’s life that lends Miller’s quest for historical accuracy such particular resonance.
Miller’s biography is awash with small details and fascinating anecdotes. It’s also full of insightful commentary on...