James Reese Europe (1880-1919) was a gifted musician who achieved numerous firsts in bringing African-American musicians and music into the mainstream. As a conductor and composer, he is credited with bringing ragtime and jazz to European audiences. He enlisted in what was to become the 369th Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters) during World War I and was bandleader and also became an officer in charge one of the machine gun squads, making him the first African-American officer to command troops during wartime.
James Reese Europe’s Early Years
Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a minster and an Internal Revenue Service employee who moved his family to Washington, D.C. in 1889 to accept a job with the Post Office. Both parents and some of Europe’s siblings were musically talented, as was James Reese Europe, and Europe was admitted to a prestigious school for blacks in D.C. There he studied violin, piano, and composition.
When he was almost 20, Europe moved to New York City and began connecting with the world of black musical theater. During the 1900s, he composed many popular songs and served as musical director for at least five major theater productions.
Europe’s experience working in the music industry showed him the need for an effective union to represent black musicians. Calling it the Clef Club of New York, Europe founded the organization in 1910 and became its first president. The Clef Club served as a booking agency as well as a group advocating for fair employment for its members, and it was quite effective.
The Clef Club also created an orchestra, and Europe became its first conductor. He envisioned it as a multi-dimensional musical group that played everything from spirituals and concert music to music of the time. Two years after formation of the orchestra, Europe worked out an appearance for the Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The date was May 2, 1912, and the “Symphony of Negro Music” was historic; it was the first time that an African-American orchestra had ever appeared at the highly esteemed music hall.
Europe returned to conduct at Carnegie Hall in 1913 and 1914.
Co-Musical Director for Famous Dance Team
Irene and Vernon Castle were the most famous ballroom dance team of their time (early 1910s). The couple performed in nightclubs and on Broadway and also taught. They are credited with popularizing the foxtrot, as well as dancing to ragtime and jazz–music that was just coming into vogue.
Late in 1913, James Reese Europe and a Clef Club colleague, Ford Dabney, were hired by the Castles to serve as musical directors for the team. The Castles and Europe’s Society Orchestra toured the country and performed at the Castles’ supper club in New York City, meeting with great success everywhere.
Based on this exposure, Europe and his orchestra got their first recording contract, the first-ever offered to a black orchestra. Over the next 18 months, Europe and his men recorded several dance music records for Victor Records.
Leading Up to World War I
In 1916 James Reese Europe enlisted in the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. (This National Guard unit was to become the 369th Regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters.) Europe became a commander of a machine gun squad and also served as conductor of the regiment’s brass band.
Part of the obligation of any military band during wartime is to lift morale, and the Harlem Hellfighters Band was dearly loved and highly sought after by officers and enlisted men alike. Their music was superb, and they were playing a type of music that many Americans and most Europeans never heard—jazz. “Jimmy “ Europe’s band became so popular that The New York Times (5-10-1919) wrote that he played numerous times for General Pershing and President Raymond Poincaré, and the reporter noted that French Army officer, General Henri Gouraud, “would risk defeat to travel 100 miles to hear “’Jimmy’s jazz band.’”
Though Europe was often at his station barking orders for the machine gunners, the band was in such great demand that he was often out on tour with them. However, in June of 1918 he was with his machine gunners in battle when they were victims of a gas attack. Europe had to be transferred to a field hospital to recover, and when fellow soldier and musician, Noble Sissle, stopped in to visit him, he found Europe propped up in bed, writing music. The song he composed was “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” and it was one of the most popular songs the group played after they returned to the U.S.
James Reese Europe: Returning Home With Big Plans
When the 369th returned to New York, they participated in the parade in their honor up Fifth Avenue. Europe was hailed as America’s “jazz king” and he was signed to a second recording contract. Shortly after, he and the band embarked on an extensive national tour.
Only about three months into the tour, the band was performing in Boston when Europe and a band member got into an argument. During intermission, Europe told drummer Herbert Wright he “needed to put more pep in the sticks.” (The New York Times, 5-10-1919) Wright followed Europe to his dressing room, and after a short argument, Wright drew a knife and slashed Europe in the neck. Europe did not survive the injury. Wright was arrested.
Despite Europe’s short life, he left an indelible mark on the music world of the day as well as the music to come. Through his direct association with Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, and George Gershwin he helped shape the future of American music.
“We won friends by playing music that was ours,” Europe was known to have said. Ragtime and jazz were here to stay, and it was America’s music, thanks to James Reese Europe.
New York City provided an official funeral for James Reese Europe—the first ever held for an African-American.
Here is his composition, Memphis Blues: