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When we last heard from band leader James Reece Europe in 1914, he was taking his all-black orchestra to Carnegie Hall and accompanying Irene and Vernon Castle as they performed the foxtrot to high society. Of course, since 1914, a lot has changed. Jazz has swept ratime – even the hottest varieties of it – from the scene, and America has been to war in Europe. It might be natural to assume that the first of these is more important to Jim’s career, but not so.
As the USA entered the war in 1917, Jim joined his friend Noble Sissle in enlisting in the still segregated US Army, and were assigned to the legendary 269th Infantary Regiment, otherwise known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” – the first black unit sent to France. On arrival they were assigned to the French army out of fear that white American soldiers would refuse to fight alongside them, and a racist pamphlet titled “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops” was distributed to their new commanding officers. For the most part, the French treated the 269th as they would any other regiment – the country was in such dire straits that any manpower was welcome – and given the chance to show their worth, the “Hellfighters” earned their nickname in a series of famous battles, with Private Henry Johnson, a former New York railway porter, becoming the first American to win the Croix de Guerre.
Europe and Sissle were not directly involved in combat, however – they were instead quickly enlisted in the regimental band, and as director Europe found the freshest talent available. As well as Sissle (later a major songwriter) the band featured Herb Flemming (later to play with Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey) and Russell Smith (a lead trumpet player in the big band ers). Not only had the new sounds of jazz not been heard in Europe before, they were also still a novelty to the American troops, and within a year the band had travelled over 2000 miles throughout France, sowing the seeds of jazz in French, American and even British audiences. For all three audiences their sound seems to have been a complete revelation. One journalist wrote;
“the sound might be called liquefied harmony. It runs and ripples, then has a sort of choking sensation; next it takes on the musical color 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.”
The tour continued for months after the end of the war, and the group only returned to the USA in February 1919. As their ship arrived they were perhaps surprised to find more than a million people had lined the streets of New York in order to see their victory parade. On seeing the reception they received, Europe was reported to say
“I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negros should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies … We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”
The next month he took his band to the studio to make their first recordings in half a decade – a collection of self-penned numbers and new jazz standards which would give the first hints of what they were capable of. Noble Sissle featured on vocal for several pieces.
On the night of May 9th, 1919, Europe performed for the final time, in a concert in Boston’s Mechanics Hall. Feeling ill with a heavy cold, he grew frustrated with the behavior of two of his drummers, and in the intermission he went to the wings to reprimand them. One drummer, Herbert Wright, did not take to being lectured in this way, and in a fit of anger lunged for Europe’s neck with a pen knife. The wound seemed to be only superficial, nevertheless Europe told the band to continue without him and went to the hospital, reassuring everyone that “I’ll get along alright.” The bleeding, however, could not be stopped, and he died hours later, at the age of 39.
Lieutenant James Reece Europe was buried in Arlington National Cemetary in Washingon. The funeral march, the first public memorial for a black person in New York, followed part of the same route followed by the victory parade three months before. Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake completed the tour, before sending the band their seperate ways to change the sound of American music forever.
0:00 :17 Edison Records – Fanfare
0:00 :36 Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Ostrich Walk
0:03 :48 Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U. S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band – Memphis Blues
0:06 :19 Joseph C Smith’s Orchestra – Yellow Dog Blues
0:08 :44 Al Bernard – Hesitation Blues
0:12 :20 Bert Williams – Elder Eatmore’s Sermon On Generosity
0:12 :48 Bert Williams – Everybody Wants A Key To My Cellar
0:15 :38 Vernon Dalhart – The Alcoholic Blues
0:17 :17 Esther Walker – Sahara We’ll Soon Be Dry Like You
0:20 :31 Marika Papagika – Hrissaido
0:23 :23 Maria Smyrnea – The Grass Widow
0:24 :44 Marika Papagika – Kremete I Kapota
0:28 :35 Boston Symphony Orchestra – Lohengrin Prelude Act 3
0:30 :02 Amilita Galli-Curci – Traviata Sempre Libera
0:32 :17 Florence Cole-Talbert – Villanelle
0:34 :28 R. Nathaniel Dett – Barcarolle
0:37 :11 Edward H. S. Boatner – Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
0:39 :43 George Gershwin – Whispering
0:42 :50 Art Hickman’s Orchestra – Rose Room
0:46 :08 Yerkes’ Happy Six – Karavan
0:48 :15 Milo Rega’s Dance Orchestra – Peggy
0:51 :17 Rudy Wiedoeft’s Master Saxophone Sextet – Saxophobia
0:53 :48 Columbia Saxophone Sextette – Chong (He Come From Hong Kong)
0:55 :35 Thomas Edison – Mr. Edison’s Christmas Greetings
0:55 :49 Patrick J. Touhey – Drowsy Maggie
0:56 :56 Ada Jones and Len Spencer – How Sandy Proposed
0:57 :04 Irving Kaufmann – You’d Be Surprised
0:58 :30 Waldorf Astoria Dance Orchestra – Taxi
1:00 :24 Jean Louis Pisuisse – Ma Femme Et Ma Pipe
1:01 :53 Maurice Chevalier – On The Level You’re A Little Devil
1:03 :14 George Hamilton Green Novelty Orchestra – Moonlight Waltz
1:06 :45 Paul Biese and his Novelty Orchestra – Mystery!
1:08 :11 Ford Dabney’s Band – Camp Meeting Blues
1:10 :23 Original Dixieland Jazz Band – Tiger Rag
1:13 :29 Orquesta De Antonio Romeu – Donde Andaba Anoche!
1:15 :14 Carmen Flores – Evaristo Agachaté Que Te Han Visto
1:16 :19 Orquesta Felix Gonzalez – Carmelina
1:17 :49 Blanquita Suárez – La Cigarrera
1:19 :23 Toots Paka’s Hawaiians – Pua O’ Hula
1:21 :29 Harry T. Burleigh – Go Down Moses
1:22 :19 Anatoli Lunacharsky – On People’s Education (Excerpt 1)
1:22 :28 Abe Schwartz and his Orchestra – Bessarabia Hangi
1:24 :27 Anatoli Lunacharsky – On People’s Education (Excerpt 2)
1:24 :38 Pinchos Jassinowsky – K’dusho (Na’artizkho)
1:25 :07 Sergei Rachmaninoff – Prelude In C Sharp Minor
1:27 :20 Clarence Cameron White – Lament
1:28 :55 Master Thomas Criddle – That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine
1:31 :56 Edward Avis and Howard R Garis – Bird Calls with Story Part 2
1:32 :19 George Formby Sr – One Of The Boys
1:35 :03 Henry Burr – I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles
1:37 :49 Louisiana Five – Virginia Blues
1:39 :40 Wilbur C. Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band – Kansas City Blues
1:42 :44 Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U. S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band – That Moaning Trombone