Based on the life of Valaida Snow, one of the first female jazz trumpeters, this lyrical novel pulses with the heartbeat of black America in the early decades of the twentieth century. Valaida is just fourteen when she leaves her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to work as a chorus girl in a traveling revue. Hired as a singer, dancer and violinist, Valaida moves beyond the security of the Negro neighborhood into a world where Jim Crow laws and attitudes define the borders of her life.
Valaida’s passion for the trumpet is ignited the first time she holds the instrument in her hands, and she sets her course to make her name as a trumpeter. Other jazz greats such as Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington gain recognition for their talent, but Valaida—as a woman—faces ridicule and rejection within the jazz community. When offered opportunities to perform overseas, Valaida seizes them gladly, enjoying the freedom from American prejudices.
Soaring from the exhilaration of Harlem nightclubs to the hopelessness of Chinese opium dens, and from the thrills of Parisian cabarets to the terrors of a Danish prison camp, this biographical novel is the story of an era. Although some of the techniques used to tell that story weaken the strength of the novel—notably Valaida’s imagined conversations with a friend while imprisoned in Denmark—Allen’s tour de force is to bring to life the brilliance and passion of the jazz musicians. Highly recommended.