Thursday, July 12, 2007
THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTER
James Reese Europe introduced Americans to the foxtrot, the French to ragtime, and black troops to the trenches of World War I before his tragically early death.
BY DAVID LANDER
(THIS ARTICLE APPEARS COURTESY OF AMERICAN LEGACY MAGAZINE-FALL 2005 EDITION COPYRIGHTED 2005)
IN THE SPRING OF 1914 JAMES Reese Europe was "the busiest man in New York," according to the New York News. The paper reported that he needed three secretaries to keep abreast of all his musical activities. In one week alone, his band played for both Virginia’s governor and President Wilson’s daughter.
Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1880 and moved with his family to Washington, D.C., when he was nine. He ventured farther north, to New York City, shortly after the turn of the century and spent several years there playing mandolin and piano in black musical theater.
After about 1910 a shift in popular taste resulted in fewer black theatrical productions. But another form of public entertainment, social dancing, would soon propel society toward the Roaring Twenties, and the fad would mean plenty of work for Jim Europe.
Because the musicians’ union didn’t admit blacks, Europe and some friends created their own organizations, the Clef Club, which served them as a booking agency. He was its first president. He already had patrons of his own, since he had been performing at parties given by the Wanamakers, the prominent department-store family, and had become known to the smart set there.
His alliance with Vernon and Irene Castle, a white dance duo who were hugely popular in the years before World War I, made him a genuine celebrity. In 1913 he became their bandleader, and Irene’s admiration is evident in her description of his "profound knowledge of music." Jim Europe’s black instrumentalists wore tuxedoes while performing. Unusually for the era, they worked from musical scores, following them so closely that Europe’s associate Eubie Blake quipped, "If a fly lit on that paper he got played." Europe composed dozens of numbers for the Castles, including "Castles’ Half and Half" and "Castle Walk," both named for steps the pair introduced. Vernon credited their most popular invention, the foxtrot, to their bandleader, saying African-Americans had been doing it for years. Europe in turn said it was inspired by the music of W.C. Handy.
In 1912, to help raise funds for a Harlem music school, Clef Club members joined the school’s white backers in planning a series of landmark concerts showcasing African-Americans. To lend the first of the concerts prestige, they rented Carnegie Hall, giving them 3,000 seats to fill. Happily, the New York Evening Journal made the May event a must-attend affair. After an advance editorial asserted that "Negroes have given us the only music of our own that is American – national, original and real," a standing-room-only, mixed-race audience poured into the auditorium to hear a black orchestra that included a bank of upright pianos manned by dexterous ragtime players. The school made $5,000 that evening, and the Clef Club’s musicians were invited to play at private parties as far away as London and Paris.
Europe married a widow threes years his senior, Willie Angrom Starke, in 1913, but he maintained a previous relationship with Bessie Simms, a dancer a decade younger than he was. She bore his only child, James Reese Europe, Jr., in February 1917, just months after James,Sr., enlisted in the New York National Guard.
He joined the newly formed 15th Infantry Regiment (Colored), he explained to his friend and fellow musician Noble Sissle, because "there has never been such an organization of Negro men that will bring together all classes…for a common good." That motivation must have been front-and-center in his mind when, though lacking interest in brassy military music, he agreed to organize a regimental band. By then, he had passed the officer’s exam and was proud to have a machine-gun unit under his command.
At the end of 1917, the 15th sailed for France, where it was assigned to noncombat duties. Its white commanding officer, Col. William Hayward, eventually succeeded in getting his black troops, who were forbidden from fighting alongside white American soldiers, transferred to the French army; they were rechristened the 369th Infantry Regiment, but the French soon began to call them the Hellfighters, and with good reason. They fought so effectively that in December 1918 the entire unit received the Croix de Guerre.
Europe, his biographer Reid Badger notes, was "the first African-American officer to lead troops into combat in the Great War," and "very likely the first to cross no-man’s land and participate in a raid on the German lines." He served for five months in the trenches and had, as he confided in a letter home, "some miraculous escapes," but in June 1918, Lieutenant Europe and his machine-gun company were bombarded by shells containing poison. Overcome, he was carried to a hospital, where he wrote a tune titled "On Patrol in No Man’s Land."
He was reassigned to his band in August, and the musicians electrified one audience after another. In Paris’s Tuileries Gardens, "the crowd, and it was such a crowd as I never saw anywhere else in the world, deserted [top French, British, and Italian military bands] for us," Europe said. "We played to 50,000 people, at least, and, had we wished it, we might be playing yet."
The 369th returned home in February 1919. Throngs of New Yorkers, and not only African-Americans, turned out for its victory parade north along Fifth Avenue, toward Harlem, and Europe’s men really swung. One spectator later recalled how he and "hordes" of others poured into the street "behind the 369th and the fantastic sixty-piece band …beating out those rhythms."
James Reese Europe remains an all-too-little-known figure given the achievements that Reid Badger chronicles in his biography, A Life In Ragtime. Badger feels Europe’s "reputation suffered…chiefly because, like the era to which he belonged, he was a transitional figure, and like all transitional figures difficult to place."
"If I live to come back I will startle the world with my music," Europe said before going off to war. He might have, but he wasn’t allowed the time it would have taken for his driving ragtime style to mature into full fledged jazz. On May 9, 1919, in Boston, near the end of a victory tour for the Hellfighters Band, a crazed young drummer in the group stabbed his lieutenant in the neck. Europe died shortly before midnight. He was 39.
In New York, W.C. Handy, three of whose blues compositions Europe had recorded earlier that year, felt a "strange restlessness." He couldn’t sleep, so he spent the night riding the subway. When he emerged from underground, it was daylight, the newspapers were out, and their headlines trumpeted news of James Reese Europe’s death. "Harlem didn’t seem the same," Handy later wrote.
David Lander is a frequent contributor to American Legacy magazine. A CD containing all the 1919 recordings of Lieutenant Europe’s 369th Infantry Hellfighters Band is available on the Memphis Archives label. For information, call 800-713-2150, or go to
www.insidesounds.com and click on the online catalogue’s jazz link.