1904 – 1956
I am a huge Bix Beiderbecke fan; I prefer him to Louis Armstrong, and as far as I’m concerned, jazz died with Bix in 1931. But a close second to Bix in my heart is the great, unjustly forgotten Valaida Snow, the triple-threat singer, dancer and trumpet player known somewhat condescendingly as “Little Louis.” Unlike her fellow black songstresses Lena Horne, Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker, Valaida died pretty much forgotten, and it’s only thanks to her rerelease on CD (as well as YouTube) and a 2007 biography by Mark Miller that she’s at all known. Valaida never hit it big on Broadway or in revues, and her only movies were tiny cameos in Take It From Me (a 1937 B-film) and Pièges (a 1939 French film)—as well as a few Soundies in 1946, when she was past her prime.
Mostly, she toured, all over the world: she was rarely in the U.S. long enough to become a star here. Valaida played in Shanghai, Tokyo, Calcutta, Jakarta, Egypt, Italy, London, Paris—as well as every city in the US that would book a black act. Thank goodness—lucky us—she recorded, though. Her best sessions took place from 1933-37, recorded in New York and London. She sings—fabulously—and in many of the sides, plays a mean trumpet. She continued recording off and on through 1953, in Stockholm, L.A., New York and Chicago, but it’s those earlier numbers you have to catch.
Another reason Valaida did not become a bigger star was, well, she was kind of a mess (which is no less than we expect of our jazz musicians). Not as big a mess as Bix Beiderbecke, but that’s setting the bar kind of low. She drank too much, she got involved with too many bad-news men (including marrying a barely-legal teenager when she was 27—while she was still legally married to her previous husband). She got into debt, was arrested for stealing from hotels, and found herself in Europe playing “degenerate jazz” when the Nazis invaded. She spent ten weeks in custody—though not in a concentration camp, as she later claimed—and returned to the U.S. exhausted, drained and largely forgotten in 1942. For the rest of her life, she continued to tour, play clubs (even the Palace, in its 1950s revival as a vaudeville house) and recording, but when she died of a stroke at the age of 51, few took notice.
There is precious little film of Valaida Snow; here is a clip from that 1939 French film (you want to yell to the cameraman to focus back on her, we don’t care about whoever the fat Frenchman is!)
And here is a 1935 recording of “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants in My Pants”
That’s Valaida on vocals and hot trumpet, accompanied by Rupert Featherstonehaugh (which is pronounced, I am guessing, “Throatwobbler Mangrove”) on tenor sax. As much as I love this recording, though, I must question its logic: I would think that the presence of ants in one’s pants would encourage—indeed, precipitate—dancing, not prevent it.