Born: February 22, 1881 | Died: May 19, 1919 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, James Reese Europe emerged as the most renowned bandleader of New York's entertainment world. Famed for his syncopated orchestral accompaniment of the dancing team of Irene and Vernon Castle, Europe became a major figure in promoting the popularity of social dancing and engendered a ragtime-based music that contributed to the emergence of jazz. During World War I, his 369th Infantry Band the “Hell Fighters,” was hailed by French and American troops as the finest ensemble in the Allied Army.
James Reese Europe was born on February 22, 1880, in Mobile, Alabama. When Europe was nine years old his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he received formal piano instruction from his mother, and studied his father's improvisational skills on fiddle and banjo. At Washington's respected M. Street High School, Europe joined the school drill company and served as the corps color sergeant. After school the young man helped organize church concerts at Lincoln Memorial Church and presented violin recitals with his sister, Mary. When his father died, 19-year-old Europe sought to support the family by becoming a professional musician.
He left home to join his brother, John, a successful cabaret pianist, in New York. At first Europe auditioned at clubs on violin, but later, he switched to mandolin and piano. Europe's first theater engagement came in 1904 when he directed the musical farce “Trip to Africa,” an experience that opened new horizons for Europe, who, over the next six years, devoted himself to the development of black musical theater. In 1905 he joined the 20-member orchestra the Memphis Students, and became active in a number of other black musical productions. The years of 1906-07, he served as music director of a three-act comedy “The Shoo-Fly Regiment,” and in 1907- 08, he followed up with “The Black Politician.” In 1908 Europe was invited to become a charter member of the Frogs, an 11-member club dedicated to promoting the Negro theatrical profession and its image as a serious art form. That year he also spent a great deal of time preparing the orchestra and cast for the debut of a comedy production “Red Moon.”
In 1910 Europe gave up his musical duties to help found the Clef Club, a black musicians union. Elected as the organization's first president, Europe sought to achieve higher musical standards, equitable salaries, and better treatment from white employers. Europe upheld a strict dress code, stipulating that musicians wear tuxedos on jobs booked in advance and suit and bow ties for pick-up dates. Under Europe's direction, the club's initial 100- man orchestra took the name the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra. It was an unconventional aggregation that consisted of mandolins in place of first and second violins. It also featured violins, banjos, harp guitars, cellos, trap drums, and timpani. Not long after its formation, the group expanded to include an organ, two flutes, two clarinets, and ten pianos. Europe demanded that musicians play only the written score; he stressed the written arrangement and exact performance over spontaneous improvisation. His repertoire included marches, rags, vaudeville numbers, minstrel tunes, operatic medleys, and popular songs. When not composing and organizing music for the orchestra's next performance, Europe involved himself in community work and appeared as a guest director for various black bands.
On May 2, 1912, Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall, marking the first time an African American ensemble had performed at the famous concert hall. Always concerned with maintaining a proper image, Europe broadened the musical scope of the program, offering a dignified repertoire of secular and religious, traditional and modern, and vocal and instrumental performances. Following a successful second Carnegie Hall concert and a triumphant eastern tour with the Clef Club Orchestra in 1913, Europe joined forces with the internationally acclaimed ballroom dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle. While black musicians had played for white dancers before this, the enormous visibility of the Castles and Europe had a profound impact on the opportunities for black musicians. When the Castles and their wealthy benefactors opened a dance school, the Castle House, Europe's Society Orchestra became the in-house accompaniment. Months later, when the Castles opened the Sans Souci, a short- lived nightclub on 42nd Street, Europe provided music for that establishment as well.
On December 29, 1913, Europe and his orchestra began a series of recordings for Victor records, marking the first time in history that a major record label had secured a contract with an African American musician and an all- black orchestra. The Victor sides are a valid sample of tangos and fox trots that Europe played. The sound is clearly stiff instrumental ragtime, adhering to the written score and featuring two violins, cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano, five banjo-mandolins, cello, string bass, and drums. Resigning from the Clef Club, he established his own organization, the Tempo Club. In 1914, and over the next two years, Europe continued to perform with the Castles and made numerous appearances with his Tempo Club Orchestra. Because of the popularity of Europe's orchestras, he eventually pressured New York's white-led American Federation of Labor (AFL) musicians union to accept black members. Though this triumphant step did not end the practice of unequal pay and working conditions for blacks, it did offer greater work opportunities to black musicians, who were becoming in great demand around the city.
By the summer of 1915, at least 15 Europe-organized bands were performing at theaters and private parties on the East Coast. Among those working with Europe were Noble Sissle and ragtime pianist Eubie Blake. African American theater, however, would soon fall into quick decline. In 1916, as World War I raged in Europe and motion pictures drew crowds away from concert stages, many black musicians found themselves out of work.
On September 18, 1916, Europe joined the newly formed 15th Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Assigned as a private to a machine gun company, Europe did not join the army with the intention of becoming a military musician; rather, he believed that the establishment of an African American military unit in Harlem would inspire greater civic pride among blacks. Commissioned a machine gun regiment lieutenant, he was asked, in the spring of 1916, to join the regimental band. He initially declined, explaining that his duties at the Tempo Club afforded him little time for such a venture. But a few months later, realizing the positive image that could be promoted by such a unit, he joined the band as a sergeant (at this time no officers were commissioned in army bands).
Over the next months, Europe joined the regiment's musicians, such as former musical associate Noble Sissle, in recruiting band members. In 1917 he traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in search of reed players. So it was that eighteen leading Puerto Rican musicians found themselves recruited into the band. That this was a seminal moment cannot be emphasized enough; the point when highly skilled Latin musicians came into contact with Black American music and learned to play jazz over the course of the Great War.
Returning to New York with new recruits, he joined the 15th, which embarked for field training near Poughkeepsie, New York. Europe joined the 3rd Battalion at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina following a period of training and band rehearsal at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
On New Year's Day 1918, Europe stepped off a troop ship onto French soil at the port city of Brest, where, in the midst of cheering crowds, he led the band in the playing of the French national anthem, the Marseilles. For the next few months, the band toured throughout France, performing for crowds of enthusiastic soldiers, school children, and townspeople. Due to the Army's racial policies prohibiting the mixing of black and white troops, the 15th New York became incorporated into the U.S. Army 369th Infantry and was subsequently assigned to the French Army's 16th Division. To take charge of his machine gun company, Europe left the regiment band under the leadership of bandmaster Eugene Francis Mikell. On the front lines in the Argonne Forest, Lieutenant Europe became the first African American officer to lead black troops into combat. The 369th became one of the few U.S. units that American commanding general John J. Pershing let serve under French command. Donning French uniforms and taking up French rifles, these men fought valiantly alongside French Moroccans and held one of the widest sectors on the Western Front. They also played a key role in the Allies' climactic Meuse-Argonne offensive, earning the name Hell Fighters from their beleaguered German enemy. For its performance in combat, the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the French government's highest military honor.
Europe was sent to Paris for rehabilitation after a German poison gas attack. Returned to his band, he led the ensemble for a triumphant performance at the Theatre Champs-Elysees. In his recollection of the band's appearance at the internationally renowned theater, Europe stated, Before we played two numbers the audience went wild. We had conquered Paris. The band appeared at hospitals and various gatherings during its eight-week stint in the French capital. Though they played written arrangements, the band's use of blue notes, slurs, and unorthodox horn-tonguing techniques brought them praise from member of Allied bands and the French people were treated to a primitive sort of big band jazz. On February 17, 1919, the highly decorated 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard was welcomed home by thousands who turned out to watch it march up Fifth Avenue. Marching in the closed-shoulder-ranks style of the French Army, the unit proceeded west on 110th Street, and then turned north to Harlem.
Just a few weeks after returning from the war, Europe and his Hell Fighters recorded eleven tunes for the Pathé Freres Phonograph Company of Brooklyn. The list contained such interesting titles as That Moaning Trombone, Jazz Baby, Russian Rag, and On Patrol In No Man's Land. He made some of the earliest recorded versions of several tunes that still appear in the repertories of today's Dixieland bands - The Darktown Strutter's Ball, Ja-Da, and three W.C. Handy classics - St. Louis Blues, Memphis Blues, and Hesitating Blues.
I would like to list all the band members in recognition of their incredible feat of fighting in a war while also playing in a band and surviving to come home as triumphant heroes. This was a combination of musicians from Harlem and Puerto Rico:
James Reese Europe - Director, Conductor, Arranger Eugene Mikell - Assistant Conductor Felix Weir Assistant Conductor
Dope Andrews, Herb Fleming, Amos Gillard, Rafael Hernandez,Trombones - Arturo B. Ayala, Gregorio Felix Delgado, Rafael Duchesne, Antonio Gonzalez, Jesus Hernandez, Elige Rijos, Genaro Torres, Clarinets - Sixto Benitez, Alex Jackson, Lee Perry, Jose Rivera Rosas,Tubas - Frank DeBroit, Pops Foster, Jake Porter, Russell Smith, Cornets - Pablo Fuentes, Bassoon - Calvin Piccolo Jones,Piccolo, Flutes - Ceferino Hernandez, Pinkhead Parker, Saxophones - Froilan Jimenez, Nicholas Vazquez, Baritone Horns - Eleuterio Melendez, Francisco Melendez, Mellophones - Noble Sissle, C. Creighton Thompson, Vocals - Hurbert Wright, Steven Wright, Karl Kenny, and Whitney Viney - Drums
Back in New York, Europe toured with his military band and made plans to create a Negro symphony orchestra. He stated, I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negroes should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies.... We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines. But Europe's vision of an all-black symphony was abruptly extinguished on May 19, 1919, when, inexplicably, he was stabbed to death by his 16-year-old snare drummer, in the dressing room of Boston's Mechanic Hall.
Despite his untimely death, Europe's commitment to the creation of a unique African American music would ultimately emerge in a new form known as jazz. His contributions to musical theater and African American society-band music would live on in the work of such greats as William Marion Cooke, Noble Sissle, and William Grant Still, and in the sophisticated jazz dance bands of the 1920s and 1930s. His intelligence and professionalism helped break down racial barriers, which enabled thousands of black musicians to attain work in ballrooms throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Source: James Nadal