While teaching a class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I stumbled into a great lifelong-learning moment. The topic was jazz’s presence in just about every corner of American life and this class focused on radio, film and TV. In the film part, I discovered a phenomena known as “Soundies,” short three-minute music videos that were the forefunners of MTV. They were produced mostly in the 1940’s and shown in coin-operated “movie jukeboxes” called Panaroms. They were placed in nightclubs, taverns, restaurants, public amusement centers and even factory lounges, with films changing weekly. Each Panarom housed a 16mm film projector with eight films lopping through its threads. Mirrors flashed the image from the lower half of the cabinet onto a front-facing screen in the top half. After depositing 10 cents, you saw whatever film of the eight was next in line.
By the time Soundies and Panaroms became obsolete in 1947 with the rise of television, over 1800 little films had been made featuring a large variety of musicians and musical styles. Amongst them was jazz and several notable—and less-known— jazz musicians.
In one Youtube collection of some of the Soundies called Jazz and Jive
(https://youtu.be/uX3-ejTxMbIyou can see the Delta Rhythm Boys singing the A Train, Fats Waller singing Your Feet’s Too Big and Count Basie playing Take Me Back Baby.
But the big surprise was a singer named Valaida Snow singing a song called Patience and Fortitude
( she's at 12:22 in the video should you want to see it— and you should!) She was an impressive singer, but really surprised me when she picked up the trumpet and played a wonderful short solo. After I showed it to the class, one of the students asked if I knew more about her. I confessed that indeed I didn’t. So in our 5-minute break, I rushed to Wikipedia and here’s what I found:
“Snow was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her mother, Etta, was a Howard University- educated music teacher and her father, John, was a minister who was the leader of the Pickaninny Troubadours, a group mainly consisting of child performers. Raised on the road in a show-business family, where starting from the age of five, she began performing with her father's group. By the time she was 15, she learned to play cello, bass, violin, mandolin, banjo, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet and saxophone. She also sang and danced.”
What?!! My kind of musician!! It goes on.
“After focusing on the trumpet, Snow quickly became so famous at the instrument that she was nicknamed "Little Louis" after Louis Armstrong, who called her the world's second best jazz trumpet player, besides himself. W.C. Handy who is known as the Father of the Blues, gave her the nickname "Queen of the Trumpet." In a 1928 performance in Chicago at the Sunset Café, Snow played the trumpet, sang. Then seven pairs of shoes were placed in a row at the front of the stage, and she danced in each pair for one chorus. The dances and shoes to match were: soft-shoe, adagio shoes, tap shoes, Dutch clogs, Chinese straw sandals, Turkish slippers, and the last pair, Russian boots. "When Louis Armstrong saw the show one night, he continued clapping after others had stopped and remarked, 'Boy I never saw anything that great'."
So why don’t we know about her? No surprise. Read on.
“Despite her talent, she had fewer opportunities to hold residencies as a bandleader at clubs in New York or Chicago, like many of her male peers. Instead, she predominantly toured, playing concerts throughout the US, Europe, and China. In 1926, she toured London and Paris with theBlackbirds revue and then from 1926 to 1929, she toured with Jack Carter's Serenaders in Shanghai, Singapore, Calcutta and Jakarta.”
Pretty amazing to travel to those places in the 1920’s! Things were looking up in the 30’s:
"Her most successful period was in the 1930s when she became the toast of London and Paris. Around this time she recorded her hit song "High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm". She performed in the show Rhapsody in Black, in New York. In the mid-1930s, Snow made films with her husband, Ananias Berry, of the Berry Brothers dancing troupe. After playing the Apollo Theater in New York City, she revisited Europe and the Far East for more shows and films. She was imprisoned in a Copenhagen jail during WWII when Nazi soldiers took over Denmark, where she was touring.
Valaida Snow died aged 51 of a brain hemorrhage on May 30, 1956, in New York City, backstage during a performance at the Palace Theater."
On February 22, 2020, the New York Times published a long-belated obituary of her in a series appropriately titled Overlooked No More. While she exhorts us to consider that Patience and Fortitude is what it takes for things to come our way, it’s not so easy if you’re a woman in a man’s world and a black person in a white-dominated world. So alongside Lil Hardin, Big Mama Thornton and Hazel Scott, I’m definitely adding Valaida Snow to the list of people we need to know about.
Patience and fortitude. Good advice for the world we're in at the moment. We could all use more of it. And now we have Valaida Snow to help remind us.
Patience and fortitude (3x)
And things will come your way
Couldn't wait for the egg to hatch
Used to burn both ends of the match
Couldn't wait for the cake to bake
But now I can see it's a big mistake
River wear away the rock
With patient fortitude
And rust will spoil the strongest lock
With patient fortitude
And grindstone wears away the knife
With patient fortitude
Same applies to naggin' wife
Have patient fortitude.