Many biographers are diligent researchers; a few are graceful writers. Mark Miller is both in the fashion of John Chilton and Anthony Barnett. His new book remained in my thoughts long after I had finished it. It asks important questions without ever being weighty. Its central one may be this: When does “reinventing oneself,” an activity cherished in our time, become morally suspect? It is one of those rare biographies that, while honoring its subject, eventually becomes more intriguing than the person it sets out to examine. Here’s what I wrote for CODA — published in their most recent issue, now available. (If you don’t know CODA, you should: it’s an honest jazz journal that has kept itself afloat for fifty years now. Visit their website: www.coda1958.com.)
HIGH HAT, TRUMPET AND RHYTHM: The Life of Valaida Snow, by Mark Miller. The Mercury Press, Toronto, 2007. 187 pages, photos, discography, bibliography ($19.95)
Mark Miller has a well-deserved reputation as a fine jazz historian. His writing, understated and elegant, grows out of a thoughtful analysis of evidence, written and aural. And he is a first-rate scholar, energetically unearthing fascinating information in newspaper clippings, oral histories, arcane historical research, gracefully weaving the details into his narrative. He is best known for his large-scale studies of Canadian jazz history, but his latest book is a compact biography of Valaida Snow (1904-56), the African-American singer, trumpet player, bandleader, and dancer, its title her own musical self-advertisement. With characteristic diligence, Miller traces his subject’s private life, her travels, the reviews she received, and her repertoire in and out of the recording studio. The book also includes a detailed discography, bibliography, and several photographs of Valaida that were new to me.
Although little-known today, Valaida was a remarkably accomplished figure. Her records reveal that she could sing “hot” or be more melodramatic than Ethel Waters at her most histrionic. On trumpet, she emulated Louis Armstrong with some success. She trained the girls in the chorus, arranged for the bands she led, conducted the orchestra in Rhapsody in Blue. Starting as a child prodigy in vaudeville, she impressed audiences and her peers (Armstrong himself, Earl Hines, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Svend Asmussen, Clora Bryant, and Sarah McLawler) for a half-century. Valaida toured Europe and performed in Shanghai, both for long periods, perhaps unwittingly removing herself from the thriving American jazz scene. As an African-American woman singing and playing jazz as early as 1922, she certainly deserved a book-length study before now.
But Valaida’s case is a complicated one for a biographer, not only because jazz musicians of this period were chronically under-documented. Establishing an accurate record of her life and work is difficult because she created new stories about herself as the mood took her, dramatizing herself as a victim to receive substantial press coverage. In retrospect, her fabrications seem the acts of a child spinning fantastic tales to get attention. Unlike many biographers, while Miller is tracing his subject’s deceptions, he does not fume or moralize. In his introduction, he even apologizes for being a “spoilsport” who debunks the stories of Valaida’s life others have taken as true. Yet his uncovering of her largest lie is the book’s dramatic center. Returning home after her 1936-42 European stay, she explained to credulous American reporters that she had been interned in a German concentration camp. With each retelling, her account grew more horrible as she invented stories of being whipped and starved. For a 1945 engagement, her publicity included the phrases: “Out of A Nazi Horror Camp” and “Two Years in A Nazi Concentration Camp.” Miller’s examination of Valaida’s itineraries proves that she was never interned. Readers with any historical sensibility will find these pages painfully compelling.
Miller does not allow this history to distract him from Valaida’s art. He presents her as a multi-talented jazzwoman when such individuals were rare, a vibrant musician and stage personality. Wisely, he does not make claims for her as an innovator, and his evaluation of her sixty-odd records is even-handed. He finds some performances “elegant,” others “forced.” His chronicle of her final decade, when she, like many musicians of her generation, attempted to appeal to changing audiences with new material, is restrained and brief. When I finished this book, her story raised questions that continue to reverberate. Would she have succeeded had she stayed at home? Why was she so compelled to lie? Did she know that she was doing it? Miller’s thoughtful analysis has made for a book that I found more rewarding than its subject’s recorded legacy. The “Valaida” he has brought to life – gifted and inexplicable – might be the heedless protagonist of a novel Fitzgerald never wrote.