Black History: Special Delivery!!
James Reese Europe (1881 – 1919) was born in Mobile Alabama. Europe’s father was previously enslaved. His parents were both musicians; with his mother reading music and his father only playing by ear. The family relocated to Washington DC in 1889 where his father worked for the post office. At the age of 14, he entered a music writing competition and won second place. At the age of 22, Europe made New York City, his new home. He also composed music for the group, “Memphis Students” while there. During his time with the Memphis Students, but without his knowledge, Europe influenced George Gershwin. Gershwin recalled sitting outside of the club in Harlem as a seven year old boy listening to James Europe play.
In 1910, Europe co-founded “The Clef Club”. The Clef Club was in part, a fraternal organization for African American musicians. It also served as talent agency and trade union for African American musicians. The Clef Club purchased a building on W. 53rd Street in New York City. The location served as both a club and a booking office. James Europe was its first elected president and symphony orchestra conductor. In 1912, The Clef Club Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall to rave reviews. This performance was also hailed as having a positive influence on race relations. It was the first African American jazz band to play at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra featured approximately 125-150 musicians playing for a diverse crowd of black and white patrons. The orchestra’s performances at Carnegie Hall gave them wide acclaim with white society and opened up opportunities for them to perform at other elite functions in New York, London, and Paris. The Clef Club not only supported musicians but other entertainers as well; thereby helping to improve working conditions for many of them. It was common at that time, that musicians would often be hired as waiters and bartenders who, might also provide musical entertainment. When a musical entertainer, or group was hired through The Clef Club, they were hired solely as entertainers and were paid a salary, transportation expenses, and lodging.
Under Europe’s leadership, The Clef Club made over $100,000 a year in bookings, at its peak. Europe also took on the role of band leader for well known white dancers, Vernon and Irene Castle. He played an integral role in the success of the Castle’s most well known dance invention, the fox trot (possibly adapted from W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues”). The Castle’s publicly credited Europe and the black race in general for developing the fox trot suggesting that blacks had already been doing these types of dance moves for many years. Europe stepped down as The Clef Club leader in 1914 and formed the Tempo Club. He continued to play for Vernon and Irene Castle as, “Europe’s Society Orchestra”.
When World War I began, Europe became a commissioned officer in the New York Army National Guard. As a lieutenant he saw combat with the all black, 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. The unit was given this name by the French. They were inspired by their bravery and courage, on the battlefield. African American soldiers were treated as equals by the French military and respected as professionals. The unit was awarded the prestigious Criox de Guerre, the highest military honor given in France. Europe was asked by his commander, Colonel William Hayward to form a military band as part of the combat unit. The unit arrived in France on New Year’s Day, 1918. It was the first African American combat unit to serve in France. Europe’s military band became very popular. Musician, Noble Sissle, who was also part of the band stated that the, “Jazz germ” had hit France due to the influence of the band. The mix of jazz and ragtime played by the band took the country by storm. Europe continued to compose and arrange music throughout the war including, “On Patrol In No Man’s Land” which was penned after he was hospitalized after surviving a gas attack on the war front. Europe and his band, were eventually called from the war front to perform. At the conclusion of one performance, a French band leader asked Europe to share the musical arrangement with him so that his band could play some American jazz. However, when the French band performed the piece, it did not sound the same. The French band leader began to inspect the instruments used by Europe’s band assuming that they were altered. The improvisational sound of the band simply could not be duplicated by the French band.
Europe and the Hell Fighters returned from World War I in 1919 and soon began touring in America. Of his war time experiences, Europe reflected,
“I have come 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”
-James Reese Europe
The final concert of the tour was held on May 9, 1919 at Mechanic’s Hall in Boston. During the concert, one of the band members, Herbert Wright, got angry at Europe for his stern method of direction during the concert. Wright attacked Europe and stabbed him in the neck with a pencil knife during an intermission. Thinking the injury to be minor, Europe gave directions to fellow band member Noble Sissle to continue in his absence. However the knife had struck Europe’s jugular vein causing his death. The following day, newspapers carried the headline, “The Jazz King Is Dead”. Europe was hailed as the “Martin Luther King of Music” by jazz great, and fellow band member Eubie Blake. He was given an official military funeral attended by thousands.
Europe’s impact on the artistic development and formulation of Jazz as a critically acclaimed and uniquely American art form, cannot be understated. As the popularity of Jazz continued to increase, it also influenced race relations in America.
Check out the youtube video below which shares more information about James Europe and his musical accomplishments: