Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Paris, 1939. The film stars Maurice Chevalier and Marie Deá, but I only know it through a two-minute clip. The scene: a nightclub, a singer in a shimmy dress belting out American jazz. She should hardly stand out—a woman cast in the role of backdrop like a piano or potted plant—but the clip is a tangle of foreign words and flash of French teeth, and as soon as I set the clip into motion, she’s all I see. Holding a trumpet, all big smile and golden skin. A woman who’d pushed her way up from east Tennessee, working her way through the speakeasies of Harlem to the nightclubs of Paris, to this moment of smoke and perfume. Gone now, except when someone hits play and sets her loose, this woman, her voice and her horn, caught forever on a strip of celluloid.
Freeze Frame: the moment in a film when action seems to stop. The illusion of stillness, the image caught and held. Created by inserting a series of duplicate images into a sequence of frames, the image seems to hover suspended. But what ever really stands still? Behind the stillness, the image is alive behind the scene, the whir of reel and electricity. The frozen image, so solid in its stillness, is, in fact, a tangle of movement and light.
Pièges the movie is called. French for trap, the word refers to pitfalls, entanglements, and snares. But no matter whether you speak of the thing in English or French, a good trap comes down to something wanted and something caught, the sound of a lock sliding into place before the prey even realizes it has stepped into a cage. A metal-toothed claw closing down upon the animal’s foot, the hook finding the tender part of the fish, the offer of another drink, just one more, the promise of a new job, easy money, the breadcrumb trail, twigs and twine, the tripped wire, the bigger house, the marriage proposal, one last peek over the shoulder. The most dangerous traps are not constructed of metal but of words: Must you go? Then again, there are times when a trap is nothing more than a reel of old film and the images caught forever in its hold.
1939. Everything is black and white. For a black woman from the American South, a French film is not such a bad place to be trapped, the director making full use of shadow and light, the camera blurring a circle of brass, big as the moon, before pulling away to reveal the flare of trumpet, the pull of cigarette smoke and finger waves and the man at the piano tapping his foot, the woman in the sparkling dress—all brown eyes and sway of voice: Sweetheart, there’s heaven in your eyes...
The individual images that make up a film are called frames. During projection, a rotating shutter creates flashes of darkness between each frame, but a phenomenon known as persistence of vision keeps viewers from noticing the dark spaces. This is because an image lingers in the human eye even after the source is removed, forming bridges from one static image to the next, creating the perception of motion. In the early days of movies, such sequences came sixteen frames per second, which imparted the films a jittery quality but as sound was added and technology improved, film sequences increased to twenty-four frames per second. Which is how Valaida appears in the clip, smooth and unencumbered, twenty-four frames per beat.
There’s murder at work in the film, a killer using classified ads to prey upon unsuspecting women. He is all hook, they are all fish. But there’s something else, a plot to catch the man, a trap making use of the lovely Marie Deá, so that in a plot twist, the tables are turned and the woman becomes hook, the killer becomes fish. So many traps, it seems, a million ways to be caught. But none so much as for the woman who took up her trumpet back when the world expected nothing more from her than a slow fade between frames.
Good God, what they would do with her today.
Magazine covers, Talk shows and tell-alls, celebrities vying to play Valaida in the feature-film-version of her life. Who in her right mind wouldn’t want to wrap herself in gowns of silver-pink silk, push an orchid behind her ear and walk into the fold of audience and stage-light? All of New York would buzz over her dresses, the fluff and pull of the boas she insisted upon— everyone hazarding guesses over which man she’d step out with tonight. All of this before she even opens her mouth, before she lifts that horn and blows us all away.
Queen of the Horn, they called her, Queen of the Trumpet.
Little Louis, they said, because more than the singing and dancing, the trumpet was her gift, standing before the crowd, all vibration and flutter, growling into that brass.
Louis, they called her for the way she played like Satchmo, little because even with such big talent, she was a woman after all. As for me, I like to think of her as Lady Valaida; Lady for the fineness implied and for the sound—the long a snuggling up to the long notes of her name. Lady Valaida.
Of course, it’s possible she’d slip once again through the cracks. Even if a century later, a woman like Valaida might leave once again for Paris, make a stage of castles and courtyards, count royalty among her fans. Perhaps she’d do it all again, the years of roving across the sea, the back and forth: New York and London, New York and Rome, New York and Moscow. Even Asia. How they adored Valaida. How they smiled and issued invitations and served her up like the finest dish.
But for all the clamor, for all the ships to Tokyo, Jakarta and Shanghai, for all the elegant dresses and orchids delivered fresh to her dressing room door, for all her strut and sashay and hot trumpet playing, the world seemed to settle quickly around the places Valaida vacated, beginning to take up the air she breathed before she was finished with her final exhale.
Europe was a haven, a heaven, until the war. 1941. Two years after her nightclub scene in Pièges, the backdrop began to change. Even the film’s director, the German-born Siodmak, knew enough to leave, taking the last ship out of France on the eve of German occupation. But for him, leaving was a new beginning. The other side of the ocean: a welcome change. He made a home in America, made the best-known films of his career. Not so, Valaida. If she had a home in those days, it was the same strip of land from which others fled.
Friends cautioned her against staying, told stories of German intent, dark storms brewing. But Valaida had been floating for years. She would have flashed her dimples, made of Nazi talk. She’d had her share of troubles, alcohol and men, morphine and boys, and knew a thing or two about ensnarement, but even Valaida could not have expected the Germans to descend in Denmark, to pluck her from the stage, to replace the smooth song of the stage with the sound of a door scraping shut behind her.
Some say two years, others say less time. In some accounts, the prison is described as a German holding center, in others, a Danish jail. Valaida herself said it was a concentration camp. Either way, she was held captive by Nazis during the war and not the same when released. How could she be?
She’d come up in 1920s America, a time when women didn’t play horns, blacks weren’t invited onto stages with whites. Not easily. Not regularly. Even later—in the 30s and the 40s, once jazz had pushed beyond the South and become America’s sound, things loosening a bit, white bands playing with blacks—even then, the musicians were usually men. The girl who made her way from the Jim Crow South, fighting her way onto the stage in 1920s America, even that girl, with all her pluck and fire, would be hard-pressed not to be broken after so much time inside a prison cell.
Valaida is caught forever in my imagination as that young woman just arrived from Chattanooga. On the streets of Harlem, wide smile and spit curls, instrument in hand. There she is on Broadway, at the film studio, headlining at the Apollo, singing and dancing, playing her horn and taking as much of America by storm as color lines allow, then finding new stages in Paris and London. How her voice has not been remembered is its own wonder. Constricted by the times into coquettish ribbons, the vocals high and tight—but now and then something else comes through, in the low notes, something of the horn bleeds into Valaida’s voice, the hard call of it, blue and swollen, ripping the words apart at their seams.
Perhaps it was the making of sound, then, that felt most like home, Valaida emptying her breath into her instrument the way her mother taught her to. A brother and two sisters—their mother taught them the cello and bass, accordion and saxophone. But it was the slick bend of yellow metal that grabbed little Valaida, the trumpet whose call sounded most familiar. She picked up that horn, tiny girl, and made herself a terrific noise.
Did she play the White Elephant Saloon with her sisters, like Bessie Smith before her? What did she think when she looked into the Tennessee River or toward Lookout Mountain rising from the south—what sounds did the world whisper to black girls in 1903?
The clip of French film is only two minutes, but even two minutes can contain entire worlds.
Jazz is restless, the trombonist, J.J. Johnson once said, it won’t stay put.
Like images on the screen, still moving even as they appear to be still. All those frames per second, the air turning with plumes of smoke and desire, the lush jumble of French talk, the actress with her lustrous eyes tamping out a new cigarette and the man with the newspaper folded in half, a photograph stashed inside—the police inspector, it seems—but now, Valaida has started singing again: I loved you from the start. She takes up her trumpet as the camera cuts away to the woman slipping into a chair, talking with such ease she cannot help but tempt the eye, the sweet mash of martini and conversation, but even she is no match for the pull of Valaida’s voice—I love you oh so much, my sweetheart—saturating the scene, obscuring even the leading lady with her fine French pout, the inspector and his newspaper, the tangle of words a distraction from the music, the actors and the plot becoming nothing but background to the sound of breath coming clean through the brass. There it is: the jubilant blare, loud and bright but tender too—and so there are traps and so we will (some of us more than others but all of us from time to time) step into them, countless streams of sound and light caught up and frozen, women stuck behind locked cells—but for a moment, just a moment, it is Paris, 1939, the clink of glasses and the scent of rose oil rising from the inside of women’s wrists, nothing so alive as the jangle of keys, the way Valaida makes that trumpet sing.