The following is pulled from the late great jazz historian Floyd Levin’s book, “Classic Jazz A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians,” published with University of California Press, 2000. Mr. Levin is an award-winning jazz writer and has personally known many of the jazz greats who contributed to the music’s colorful history. Mr. Levin passed away January 29, 2007.
Europe was already a well-established musician by the time World War I made him famous. In 1910 he had organized the Clef Club, a musical society for black artists in New York City. Two years later his 150-piece Clef Club Orchestra became one of the first jazz bands to perform in staid Carnegie Hall. For the first time, the Carnegie suspended its rules regarding segregated seating, and the bastion of high art reverberated with the sounds of “Down Home Rag” and “That Teasin’ Rag.” The concert’s success added prestige and altered the musical life of New York City. The club, which functioned as both a booking agency and trade union for black performers, soon secured many prominent engagements and opened a world of new opportunities for its members. Bud Scott told me that, within twenty-four hours after the Carnegie event, he received an offer to record several Joplin rags with a white banjo band.
The following year Europe formed his Society Orchesrta, which began entertaining wealthy New Yorkers at posh venues such as Delmonico’s and the Hotel Astor. (Noble Sissle, who with his songwriting partner Eubie Blake would later achieve worldwide fame, was a member of the Society Orchestra.) The orchestra’s initial jazz recordings, the first by a black band, appeared on the Victor label in 1913, four years ahead of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s initial releases and eight years before Kid Ory’s historic Spike’s Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra California recording session. These early Victor records helped sustain the ragtime era.
The innovative Europe liked to experiment with syncopation, creating reed voicings, and muted brass. His use of saxophones brought a new measure of respectability to that instrument, until then regarded as a novelty device. His compositions, arrangements and orchestral direction reflected the ragtime style popular at the time and fostered the dance frenzy nurtured by the Jazz Age. In 1913 he became musical director for the successful dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. His “Castle Walk” helped them introduce the fox-trot and establish the style of ballroom dancing that has continued for generations.
When the United States entered World War I, Sissle and Europe enlisted in the army together and organized a regimental band. The group accompanied the acclaimed [the 15th New York Infantry which would later become the] 369th Infantry Regiment, the first American unit to arrive in France. The brave black unit, including the band, earned the nickname “Hellfighters” for its participation in several vital military campaigns.
By the end of the war, the 369th Infantry Jazz Band ranked among the greatest bands in the world. Its personnel, as identified by Brian Rust’s Jazz Records 1887 – 1942, included Noble Sissle on violin, Herb Flemming on trombone and Russell Smith on trumpet. Flemming, only nineteen at the time, went on to have a long distinguished career, performing with Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey. Russell Smith became one of the outstanding lead trumpet players in the big-band era two decades later.
After the war, Europe proudly led his Hellfighters band in the nation’s first parade of returning World War heroes. More than a million fans, watching the victorious march up New York’s Fifth Avenue in mid-February 1919, gathered along the parade route to salute the heroes of the famed 369th Infantry as they strutted from Madison Square to Harlem.
Europe and Sissle had written “On Patrol In No Man’s Land.” during their tenure overseas, and it quickly became a favorite among U.S.veterans. Pathé leaped at the opportunity to capitalize on its popularity as the doughboys returned to the United States. It was easily the most successful of the eleven recordings the 369th Infantry Jazz Band made for Pathé in March 1919. Based on the success of “On Patrol In No Man’s Land” James Europe’s band scheduled an extensive tour of the country. Advertisements proclaimed” “65 BATTLING MUSICIANS DIRECT FROM THE FIGHTING FRONTS IN FRANCE – THE BAND THAT SET ALL FRANCE JAZZ MAD!”
Ironically, after surviving the deadliest war in world history to that point, Europe failed to live through the Hellfighter’s national tour. A member of the drum section, irate at Europe for what he considered poor treatment, murdered him on May 10, 1919. The funeral march took place in New York, the first public memorial service held for a black person in the city’s history. The somber procession followed part of the same route the 369th had marched in its victory parade just three months earlier. Lieutenant Europe was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C.
At the time of his death, James Reese Europe was only thirty-nine years old and at the forefront of the emerging jazz movement. We can only speculate about what further contributions he might have made had he lived another few decades. He was on the threshold of a brilliant career and might have become one of the most important figures in the world of popular music. His death came less than two months after the Hellfighter’s historic recordings for Pathé. In its promotional catalog, the record company proclaimed that Europe was “the world’s greatest exponent of syncopation. You hear every moan of the trombones, and every roar of the saxophones, every shrill note of the clarinets. The swing, the rhythm and the fascination of the Jazzing makes you want to dance! You can’t sit still!”
Jim Europe–along with Sissle Nobel, make a lengthy appearance in THE LAST HELLFIGHTER as a hero/father figure of sorts for young Ben Harker who follows the jazz legend by joining the 15th New York Infantry. Many of Europe’s exploits are mentioned or written about in the book including the very famous ragtime hit, “On Patrol in No Mans Land.”