He was described as the Martin Luther King of music. James Reese Europe, a gifted musician and composer helped bring black music to the mainstream in America and Europe.
What he is well-known for is the fact that he led a band – what is known as the 369th Regiment – that brought jazz and ragtime to Europe during World War I.
Europe was also an officer in charge of the machine gun squads, making him the first African-American officer to command troops during wartime.
However, his popular band would later be his downfall and cut short what would have been a tremendous career for the conductor and composer.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1881, Europe and his family moved to Washington, D.C., while he was still young. Europe, being musically talented like the rest of the family, studied violin, piano, and composition.
By the age of 20, he had moved to New York City and had started growing connections in the black music and theatre industry. He suddenly composed many popular songs, including “Gay Luneta” in Cole and Johnson’s Shoe-Fly Regiment (1906).
Europe further served as a musical director for about five major theatre productions.
Realising the need to have a strong union to represent black musicians, Europe founded the Clef Club of New York in 1910 and became its first president.
“This organization not only put together its own orchestra and chorus, but served as a union and contracting agency for black musicians. Soon it had as many as 200 men on its roster,” according to the Library of Congress.
The Clef Club also created an orchestra. With Europe as its first conductor, the orchestra, on May 2, 1912, put on “A Concert of Negro Music” in Carnegie Hall that ended successfully. The concert was also historic because it was the first time that an African-American orchestra had ever appeared at the “highly esteemed” music hall.
Europe also worked with the popular dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle. Touring the country with them, Europe and his orchestra got their first recording contract, the first-ever offered to a black orchestra. Within a year, he and his men had recorded several dance music records for Victor Records.
But with the advent of World War I, Europe signed up and was commissioned a lieutenant for the 15th Regiment. Europe, whose greatest talent was as a conductor, an organizer, and promoter, was ordered to put together the best band he could find.
A military band during wartime was basically to lift morale. Europe 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.
Known as the 369th Infantry or the Harlem Hellfighters, 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.
It is said that when Europe 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.
The Harlem Hellfighters 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.
As a band, they used mutes on their 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.”
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.
Reports state that 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 soon, he and his band embarked on a national tour.
But three months into the tour, the band was performing in Boston when Europe and a band member named Herbert Wright got into an argument.
“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,” America Comes Alive writes.
Europe may have had a short life, but his impact on American and global music forever remains.
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.