In honor of Veterans Day, here’s the little-known story of James Reese Europe, a bandleader and composer who had a big impact on early jazz.
Born in Alabama in 1880, Jim Europe created music for black theatrical shows of a kind that flourished on Broadway in the early 1900s. He also organized the first professional guild of black musicians.
He led a 100-piece orchestra that performed a legendary recital – “A Concert of Negro Music” – at Carnegie Hall in 1912.
The next year, Europe was hired as musical director by a white dance team, Vernon and Irene Castle, who would almost single-handedly popularize ballroom dancing in the United States.
“Europe’s Society Orchestra” was likely the first black orchestra to make phonograph records for a major U.S. label (Victor).
Then came World War I.
In 1916, James Reese Europe was persuaded to take over the military band of the 15th New York Infantry, a black National Guard regiment. Under his leadership, the band performed at recruitment drives and attracted many new enlistees. Europe was rewarded with the rank of lieutenant.
The United States entered the war in 1917, and this black regiment was called to active duty, soon to be sent to France and renamed the 369th Infantry.
While overseas, Lt. Europe did more than lead the regimental band. He was assigned to a machine-gun company. According to pop-culture historian Tim Brooks, Jim Europe became “the first black officer to lead troops in combat” during the war.
The 369th Infantry distinguished itself in battle, earning the nickname “Hell Fighters.” That name also attached to Jim Europe’s band.
At war’s end, Lt. Europe and his musicians received a hero’s welcome in New York City.
The band would recreate the sounds and spirit of combat in a 1919 recording, “On Patrol In No Man’s Land.” It was written by Europe, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, with Sissle singing. Click here to hear it.
This story ends badly. In 1919, in the midst of a triumphant concert tour, Jim Europe was killed by one of his own musicians, a hotheaded drummer who sliced him with a pocket knife.
“People don’t realize yet today what we lost when we lost Jim Europe,” Eubie Blake would recall. “He was the savior of Negro musicians. He was in a class with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. I met all three of them.
“Before Europe, Negro musicians were just like wandering minstrels. Play in a saloon and pass the hat and that’s it. ... Jim Europe changed all that. He made a profession for us out of music. All of that we owe to Jim.”
The definitive biography of James Resse Europe is “A Life in Ragtime” by Reid Badger. It’s brand new in paperback.