When James Reese Europe, then the best known black bandleader in the U.S., and his 369th Infantry arrived in Brittany on January 1, 1918, they were one of the four African-American regiments sent from the racially segregated U.S. to fight under French command during the Great War.
Nicknamed Harlem Hellfighters, the unit would spend more time in combat than any other African-American unit during World War I, spending 191 days in the trenches.
Confronting racism even as they trained for war, these African-American troops fought a war for a country that refused them basic rights and their courage made headlines, according to Smithsonian.
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They fought heroically on the battlefield, claiming to have been the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany. They also fought at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, suffered around 1,500 combat casualties, but received only 900 replacement soldiers.
The regiment and many of the soldiers in it would eventually be awarded one of the French military’s high honours, the Croix de Guerre.
The unit did not only make the news for its fighting ability, but also its marching band that would eventually introduce the revolutionary jazz music to British, French and other European audiences.
Jazz, according to an article on Daily Beast, was a “kind of music, just then growing out of ragtime, that was not like anything the French, or most Americans, had ever heard before, but that caused a sensation wherever it was played.”
Led by Lieutenant Reese, the band used mutes on its trumpets and trombones, and as one reporter explained: “the sound might be called liquefied harmony. It runs and ripples, then has a sort of choking sensation; next it takes on the musical colour of Niagara Falls at a distance, and subsides to a trout brook nearby. The brassiness of the horn is changed, and there is sort of throbbing, nasal effect, half moan, half hallelujah.”
Reese, whose greatest talent was as a conductor, an organizer, and promoter, had then been ordered to put together the best band he could find.
He would soon put together a 40-strong band, including several other members he went to Puerto Rico to recruit. Basically, each soldier in the unit could fight and play an instrument. Between battles, the unit performed concerts to troops and locals.
“The French people embraced the soldiers,” said musician Jason Moran when he announced recently that he was bringing the history of the Harlem Hellfighters to audiences through a series of concerts and projects.
“Their songs talk about how do we go back to the farm (the United States) after the way we’ve been treated here,” he added.
In February and March 1918, the band travelled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for military audiences as well as French civilians, a Mail Online report said.
During this period, the band gave what is said to have been the first jazz concert on European soil, in the northwestern French city of Nantes, the report added.
The splendid performance at Nantes’s Theatre Graslin “turned France upside down”, according to local reports from the time.
“When the band had finished and the people were roaring with laughter, their faces wreathed in smiles, I was forced to say that this is just what France needed at this critical moment,” wrote one of the band members, Noble Sissle, in his memoirs.
About 171 members of The Hellfighters, known as being the most celebrated African-American regiment in World War I, was ultimately awarded the Legion d’Honneur by France for liberating the village of Sechault, where a monument to them currently stands.
Reese would return from the war as a hero and would compose one of his popular tunes, “One Patrol in No Man’s Land” while lying injured in hospital.
At the time of his death in May 1919, the world was beginning to experience a rise in jazz music, as the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and other musicians had started making waves with that genre of music.