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Valaida: A Novel by Candace Allen

Some cried racism when Dave Douglas based an album on the works of Mary Lou Williams and won more accolades for it than she had seen in her whole lifetime. Not surprisingly, any discussion of sexism was far more muted. Jazz has very successfully naturalized its image as a boys’ club, black and white, despite Williams, Melba Liston, Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan, Carla Bley and countless other innovative jazz people who happen to be female.

Many of these women were documented in Sally Placksin’s groundbreaking 1982 study, Jazzwomen, and one of the most interesting biographies out there is about multi-instrumentalist, singer and dancer Valaida Snow. Circumstances kept Snow singing and hoofing–far more acceptable trades for a woman. Her first love was trumpet, audiences had dubbed her “Little Louis” (as in Armstrong) and, as critic Jeff Aldam noted in Snow’s obituary, her trumpet playing possessed “a most unfeminine vibrato.”

Former screenwriter Candace Allen has fictionalized Snow’s life in Valaida. No Lady Sings the Blues novella of broken hearts, faithless lovers and drugs–which are all present, but largely as bit-players–Allen engages with what it might feel like to think through and play a solo; tour depressing, racist Southern towns; haggle with agents and managers. She treats Snow first and foremost as a musician. The wry, weary wit of backstage conversation rings true and the details play out before a fascinating panorama of pre-1960s jazz and vaudeville stages. In this use of close-up against rich, intensely visual backdrop, in frequent crosscutting and flashback scenes, Allen the screenwriter is very evident. And while the book remains a romance, it’s tougher than most and definitely worth reading.

Originally Published