The Most Underrated Woman in Jazz History

She was a sex symbol out of her time, a master musician, and a prisoner of war.

Valaida Snow circa 1930

Jazz fans of her time called her Queen of the Trumpet — Jazz fans today rarely know her name, her music, or her tragic life story.

Her name was Valaida Snow, and she might just be the most underrated woman in Jazz history.

Jazz music has a unique place in American history for centering African American artists; providing a voice for marginalized people.

But the many Black women who contributed to “America’s Music” are often left out of the discussion.

For Jazz-women, the status of ‘great’ is usually reserved to vocalists: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and other legends.

But how many women composers and arrangers reach Jazz-legend status?

There’s Mary Lou Williams, who in addition to being a composer was a music teacher to Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Mary-Lou Williams said that Valaida Snow could “reach out and grab” an audience with her trumpet.

There’s Lil Hardin Armstrong, whose compositions and arrangements helped put her husband Louis Armstrong on the musical map.

Louis Armstrong once called Valaida Snow the “second greatest trumpeter of all time” next to himself.

So where’s Valaida Snow’s legend status?

Snow never married a Louis Armstrong or taught a Charlie Parker, she has the twisted misfortune of not being remembered via association to her male contemporaries. And though that certainly isn’t why Lil Hardin Amrstrong or Mary Lou-Williams deserve to be studied, it -unfortunately- helps.

Valaida Snow was a multi instrumentalist, vocalist, actor, arranger and composer. She began performing at 18 years old and touring across the prohibition era, Jim Crow south.

In the 1930’s her instrument of choice was the trumpet, being the popular leading instrument of Swing music.

And swing she certainly did.

She played athletically, soloing for long stretches of time over breaks and hard drivingSwing era melodies.

For a great example of Snow’s work listen to her 1937 track “Swing is the Thing.” Here Snow solos for just under half the track length in her unique, loose but loud style.

Her vocals on the first half are very emblematic of the Swing era: an upbeat call to dance. The piano plays bluesy riffs that call back to the roots of Swing and Jazz music.

And once again, her solo is superb, a prime example of great Swing music.

Snow’s musical ability alone is enough to earn her a place in the rolodex of Jazz legends, but once again we must contextualize Snow’s playing in her time. This is because unfortunately Snow herself was unable to escape her moment in history.

In the late 1930s Snow was touring in Europe. She enjoyed the European Jazz scene, and she could avoid the harsh racism of American segregation.

But she met the harsh racism of the Nazis.

There are two main accounts of Snows arrest in Nazi occupied Copenhagen. One involves her being brought to prison on a drug charge, the other involves imprisonment based on the Nazi “Racial Infamy law to Protect Blood” for being non-Aryan.

Either way, it is known that Snow faced terrible violence in her time in prison. And when she was eventually brought back to America on a mass Prisoner of War negotiation just prior to the Halacaust, she was never the same.

Valaida Snow recorded and performed until her fatal stroke in 1956, but she never garnered the fame and respect she was on track to receiving prior to World War Two and her imprisonment in Europe.

Snow was likely unable to adapt to the bebop innovations that began to emerge in the 1950’s, but her lack of name recognition is also due to the discriminatory circumstances she faced because of her gender.

According to historian Rosetta Reitz, Valaida Snow’s 1956 obituary called her “The Lady with the Unfeminine Vibrato.”

Even in death Snow has been held down by the societal expectations forced on Black women.

Critics used to say that Snow “played like a man,” those same critics called her The Queen of the Trumpet.

It is, of course, preposterous to call Snow’s playing “manlike” or “unladylike.” Musical ability is not dependent on gender, regardless of instrument, neither is creativity, or talent, or genius. One’s place in history should not be dependent on gender either, though it has for so long it has.

Valadia Snow’s significance may have been overshadowed by male contemporaries and maybe her tragic life story prevented her from ever rising to the top of the Swing scene, but her music still exemplifies everything about Swing music that makes it historically significant: it’s upbeat, danceable, full of exciting breaks and great soloing by Snow herself.

Snow should be recognized and studied in the history of Jazz music, and not only for the sake of representation.

Valaida Snow who gives us an audible gateway into the noisy dance halls of the 1920’s and 1930’s where Jazz was in full Swing.

Journalism student at the University of King's College, Halifax N.S Canada. Writer, music enthusiast, and cautious defender of the Oxford comma.

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