James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe and Band Mobile native James Reese Europe (1880-1919) was an accomplished orchestra conductor, bandleader, and composer of popular songs, marches, and dance music during the early twentieth century. A key figure in the transformation of orchestral ragtime into jazz, Europe was an effective champion of African American musical performers and composers and helped to gain acceptance for them in the United States and abroad. As a result, he was an important influence on the evolution of American music at a pivotal time in the nation’s history.

Born in Mobile on February 22, 1880, James Reese Europe was the fourth of five children of Henry and Lorraine Europe, who were themselves native to Alabama‘s port city. Lorraine was the freeborn daughter of one of the earliest African American members of the Episcopal Church of Mobile, whereas her husband, Henry, who had been born into slavery before the Civil War, was active in the Baptist Church and employed by the Internal Revenue Service with the Port of Mobile.

At the end of Reconstruction, Henry Europe accepted a position with the National Postal Service in Washington, D.C., and in 1889 the family moved to the nation’s capital. Music was important to the Europe family, and all the children received instruction in classical piano and violin. James’s first formal music teacher was the young violinist Joseph Douglass, grandson of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and he also studied composition with a former member of the Leipzig Conservatory and with an assistant director of the U.S. Marine Corps Band. After graduating from high school and deciding upon a career in music, Europe left Washington in 1902 or early 1903 for New York City, where the prospects for black professional musicians and entertainers were brighter. Over the next eight years, Europe became well known as a composer of popular songs and instrumentals and as a successful musical director for a number of major shows that featured such stars as Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, George Walker, and Bert Williams. He also continued his formal studies with Harry T. Burleigh, a former student of renowned Czech composer Antonín Dvořák at the American Conservatory, and Melville Charlton, composer and noted organist at St. Philips Episcopal Church.

Clef Club Orchestra In April 1910, Europe became the principal organizer and first president of the Clef Club of New York, a performance space that also functioned as the first effective black musicians’ union and booking agency in the city’s history. At the time, black musicians were much in demand because it was thought that they were superior in furnishing the syncopated dance music then fashionable with high society. Europe was also appointed conductor of the club’s 100-member symphony orchestra, created to present the full range of African American musical expression, and, on May 2, 1912 Europe brought that aggregation to the stage of Carnegie Hall for a “Symphony of Negro Music.” In addition to popular songs, marches, and ragtime, the program also included more formal concert pieces, including liturgical choral works, waltzes, and tangos. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of the event. Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra, playing in the country’s most renowned white musical establishment, made many members of New York’s and, indeed, the nation’s cultural elite aware of the breadth of black musical expression for the first time. Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall for performances over the next two years.

The Castle Walk Reese married Willie Angrom Starke, a widowed socialite, on January 5, 1913, in Harlem. Later that year, Europe had become the musical director for society dancers Vernon and Irene Castle (the predecessors of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), who, with the help of Europe’s music, revolutionized American attitudes toward social dancing and perhaps much more in the years prior to World War I. Among the dances that Europe, and his musical collaborator Ford Dabney, created for the Castles were the “Castles Half and Half,” a tricky step written in 5/4 meter, and the “Fox Trot,” the most famous of all the Castle dances. As a result of this association, Victor Records offered Europe and his Society Orchestra (formed from former Clef Club members) a recording contract, the first ever given by a major label to a black orchestra.

In late 1916, Europe was prevailed upon to organize a brass band for the newly formed Fifteenth Infantry Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard. In July 1917, following the United States entry into the war, the Fifteenth was mobilized, sent to France as the U.S. 369th Infantry, and then integrated into the French Army because there was no place for a black infantry regiment in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Europe was commissioned as a lieutenant, and the band was incorporated into the Fifteenth.

The soldiers of the 369th achieved a remarkable record in battle, earning medals for their exploits and the nickname “Hellfighters.” Owing to an unusual set of circumstances, Europe served as both a machine gun company officer—in which capacity he was the first African American officer to lead troops in combat in the war—and also as leader of the “Hellfighters” celebrated marching band. Widely considered the best in the AEF, the Hellfighters Band was requisitioned to perform all across France for a multitude of French, English, and American soldiers and civilians. Specializing in the characteristically American sounds that would later be called jazz, they dazzled their audiences, and when the reports of the band’s musical successes reached the newspapers back home, Europe was proclaimed America’s first “King of Jazz.”

James Reese Europe Funeral On February 17, 1919, the 369th Infantry Regiment “Hellfighters,” led by Europe’s band, paraded up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to Harlem and disbanded; it was the first such recognition given by the city to a black military unit and a million New York citizens and dignitaries turned out to cheer them. The “Hellfighters” Band also made a series of important recordings for Pathé Records and had almost completed a successful concert tour when, during an intermission in a performance at Boston’s Mechanics Hall, Europe was fatally stabbed by an emotionally disturbed band member. James Reese Europe died on May 9, 1919. He was given a public funeral in New York City, another first for a black American, and was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Willie, and a son through a relationship with entertainer Bessie Simms, James Reese Europe Jr. Europe was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2003.

Additional Resources

Badger, Reid. A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Gracyk, Tim, and Brad Kay. Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hellfighters” Band: The Complete Recordings. Memphis: Memphis Archives, 1996.

Little, Arthur. From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York’s Colored Volunteers. New York: Covici and Friede, 1936.

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