Interest Grows in Music Pioneer James Europe, WWI Hero
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 5, 2000 The name "Lt. James Reese Europe" etched into a graying, weathered tombstone doesn't mean anything to most visitors to Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery. It's just an obscure name among thousands on grave markers throughout the huge military burial ground.
Of Europe, the late ragtime and jazz composer and performer pianist Eubie Blake once said, "People don't realize yet today what we lost when we lost Jim Europe. He was the savior of Negro musicians … in a class with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr."
Europe is credited with bringing ragtime out of the bordellos and juke joints into mainstream society and elevating African American music into an accepted art form. He was an unrelenting fighter for the dignity of African American musicians and for them to be paid on the same scale as their white peers.
The French government called him a battlefield hero. Before the war, however, he was a household name in New York's music world and on the dance scene nationwide. According to books about ragtime and early jazz, James Reese Europe was the most respected black bandleader of the "teens" when the United States entered World War I. Both his battlefield heroism and his music fell into obscurity after his untimely and tragic death at 39 on May 9, 1919.
The son of a former slave father and a "free" mother, Europe was born in Mobile, Ala., on Feb. 22, 1881. Lorraine and Henry Europe were both musicians and encouraged their children's talents.
When he was about 10, the family moved to Washington and lived a few houses from Marine Corps bandmaster John Philip Sousa. He and his sister, Mary, took violin and piano lessons from the Marine band's assistant director, Enrico Hurlei. Europe won second place in a music composition contest at age 14. Mary captured first place.
Europe moved to New York City in 1903 to pursue a musical career. Work as a violinist was scarce, so he turned to the piano and found work in several cabarets. He helped found an African American fraternity known as "the Frogs," and, in 1910, established the Clef Club, the first African American music union and booking agency.
His popularity soared as a bandleader and arranger for the internationally acclaimed dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle. The Castles and Europe helped pioneer modern dance by popularizing the foxtrot and other dances.
On May 2, 1912, Europe's Clef Club Orchestra became the first African American band and the first jazz band to play in New York City's famous Carnegie Hall. The orchestra's debut there was so well received that it was booked for two more engagements in 1913 and 1914.
Europe's compositions and arrangements of familiar tunes were played with a jazz twist long before the "Jazz Age." His style was between the syncopated beat of ragtime and the syncopated improvisation of jazz. He became popular in France using that same style as leader of the 369th Infantry Regiment band during World War I.
He enlisted as a private in the 15th Infantry, a black New York National Guard outfit, on Sept. 18, 1916. Europe accomplished something only a few African Americans did in those days: He attended officers training and was commissioned a lieutenant.
The 15th Infantry was later redesignated the 369th Infantry, which the French nicknamed "The Harlem Hellfighters" after the black soldiers showed their mettle in combat.
Europe's regimental commander, Col. William Hayward, asked the new lieutenant to organize "the best damn brass band in the United States Army." With the promise of extra money to attract first-class musicians, Europe recruited musicians from Harlem and reportedly put together one of the finest military bands that ever existed. He even recruited woodwind players from Puerto Rico because there weren't enough in Harlem. Europe also recruited singers, comedians, dancers and others who could entertain troops. He recruited the best drum major he could find -- Harlem dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
When the 369th and its band arrived in France, they were assigned to the 16th "Le Gallais" Division of the Fourth French Army because white U.S. Army units refused to fight alongside them. Trained to command a machine gun company, Europe learned to fire French machine guns and became the first American officer and first African American to lead troops in battle during the war.
The Harlem Hellfighters would serve 191 days in combat, longer than any other U.S. unit, and reputedly never relinquished an inch of ground. The men earned 170 French Croix de Guerres for bravery. One of their commanding officers, Col. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., would become the Army's first black general in 1940.
Europe was gassed while leading a daring nighttime raid against the Germans. While recuperating in a French hospital, he penned the song "One Patrol in No Man's Land."
Europe and his musicians were ordered to the rear in August 1918 to entertain thousands of soldiers in camps and hospitals. They also performed for high-ranking military and civilian officials and for French citizens in cities across France. After Germany surrendered, the Hellfighters Band became popular performing throughout Europe. When the regiment returned home in the spring of 1919, it paraded up New York's 5th Avenue to Harlem led by the band playing its raggedy tunes to the delight of more than a million spectators.
Back in America, Europe found himself even more popular than before he went to war. He recorded "One Patrol in No Man's Land"; it became a nationwide hit.
Europe ironically survived being shot at and gassed in the trenches of France only to die on May 9, 1919, at the hands of one of his own men. A deranged drummer named Herbert Wright cut Europe's jugular vein with a penknife while the bandleader was preparing for a show at Mechanics Hall in Boston. Wright had been angry because he thought Europe favored his twin brother over him.
R. Reid Badger noted in his book "A Life in Ragtime" that Europe received the first public funeral for a black man in New York City on May 13, 1919. Thousands of fans, black and white, turned out to pay their respect.
In late February 2000, a busload of aging legionnaires of the 1st Lt. James Reese Europe American Legion Post 5 in Washington carefully ambled up a slippery, wet grassy hill at Arlington National Cemetery. Reaching a weathered headstone engraved with "Lt. James Reese Europe - Feb. 22, 1881 - May 14, 1919," they laid a wreath at the grave. Europe has a larger headstone than most -- it was erected in July 1943 to replace a small government-issued 1919 grave marker.
"Our post was named in honor of James Reese Europe in 1919, but to my knowledge, no one ever stopped to put a flower on his grave," said post commander Thomas L. Campbell. "Frankly, we didn't know much about him until we read a story about him in the American Legion magazine about a year ago. I thought it was time we did something to show some appreciation for the man whose name is on our post."
Campbell said the French government bestowed one its highest military awards on Europe and the 369th Infantry. The Dec. 9, 1918, citation to the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star reads in part:
"This officer (Lt. James Reese Europe), a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, was the first black American to lead United States troops in battle during World War I. The unit, under fire for the first time, captured some powerful and energetically defended enemy positions, took the village of Bechault by main force, and brought back six cannons, many machine guns and a number of prisoners."
After their wreath-laying ceremony, the legionnaires attended a jazz concert performed by the Army Band's jazz ensemble at Fort Myer, Va., in Europe's honor.
Europe's only child, James R. Europe Jr. of North Bellmore, Long Island, N.Y., had been invited to the ceremony, but was unable to attend. The 83-year-old told the legionnaires his health made the trip inadvisable.
The younger Europe, a World War II Merchant Marine lieutenant, is a former member of the New York police and fire departments, served as chairman of the Nassau County Human Rights Commission from 1962 to 1975. The World War I bandleader's descendants include four granddaughters and a grandson, five great- grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren.
Interest has grown in Europe's music in recent years and his recordings are being remastered and reissued on CDs. The Internet is loaded with material about James Reese Europe. Using the search engine, key in James Reese Europe.