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 James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe

Birth
Mobile, Mobile County, Alabama, USA
Death 19 May 1919 (aged 39)
Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Burial Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, USA
Plot Section 2, Site 3576
Memorial ID 6553895 · View Source
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United States Army Officer, Jazz Musician, Composer. He was a World War I hero, influential ragtime musician, composer and bandleader and famous leader of the 369th Infantry named the "Hell Fighters" band during World War I. He is credited with bringing ragtime music out of the bordellos and juke joints into mainstream society and elevating African American music into a 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. Europe was also leader of the U. S. Military band that was responsible for introducing France to the syncopated rhythms of African Americans. He was a major figure in New York's African American musical community in the years leading up to World War I. Throughout his career he collaborated with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and worked closely with the popular dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. With the exception of singer/comedian Bert Williams and a few obscure gospel groups, Europe and his orchestra were the first black musicians to ever record. He also was the first African American officer in the United States military to lead men into battle. Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 22, 1881 to a father who was once a slave and a "free" mother. Both of his parents were musicians, and encouraged their children's talents. When Europe was about ten, his family moved to Washington, D. C., where he studied violin with Enrico Hurlei, the assistant director of the Marine Corps Band. The family lived a few houses from Marine Corps bandmaster John Phillip Sousa. At the age of 14 Europe entered a music-writing contest and was awarded second place, bested only by his sister Mary. At 22, he moved to New York to pursue a musical career playing piano in a cabaret. Europe also continued his musical studies, and in 1905, he joined Joe Jordan to write for The Memphis Students. That same year Europe unknowingly influenced a future songwriting great, a young George Gershwin. In 1907, he became the musical director of Cole and Johnson's Shoo-Fly Regiment. Two years later Europe performed the same duties for Bert Williams' Mr. Lode Of Coal. In 1910, he founded one of the most unusual African American organizations of the time. The Clef Club, the first African American music union booking agency, was unique in that it was part fraternal organization and part union. Europe was The Clef Club's first elected president as well as the conductor of it's symphony orchestra. The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912. They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914. One American writer said that popular music first invaded the concert auditorium when Europe played Carnegie Hall. The concerts gave The Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society, and as a result, they were engaged to play at many of the most elite functions both in New York and in London, Paris, and on yachts traveling worldwide. The orchestra functioned as a clearing house not only for musicians but also for all types of entertainers, and under Europe's leadership, it was actively involved in improving the entertainers' working conditions. The orchestra proved exceptionally successful, generating over $100,000 a year in bookings at its height of popularity. In 1914, after disputes arose between Clef Club members, Europe resigned and formed the Tempo Club. At the start of World War I, Europe enlisted as a private in the 15th Infantry, a black New York National Guard outfit. After passing the officer's exam, he later was comissioned a lieutenant and the 15th Infantry was later redesignated the 369th Infantry, which the French later nicknamed "The Harlem Hell Fighters" after the black soldiers showed their mettle in combat. Europe was soon asked to to form a military band as part of the combat unit. He got musicians wherever he could, even traveling all the way to Puerto Rico to recruit his reed players. Europe also recruited singers, comedians, dancers and other who could entertain troops. He recruited the best drum major he could find, Harlem dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. When Europe's unit arrived in France on New Year's Day 1918, it was the first African American combat unit to set foot on French soil. His band entertained troops and citizens in every city they visited and was received with great enthusiasm. Noble Sissle said at the time that the "Jazz germ" hit France, and it spread everywhere they went. "The Harlem HellFighters" would serve 191 days in combat, longer than any U. S. unit and reputedly never relinquished an inch of ground. Europe had composed and continued to write songs throughout the war, composing the words to "On Patrol in No Man's Land" while hospitalized after a gas attack at the front. On Aug. 18, of that same year, he was sent from the front to lead his band at an Allied conference in Paris. They were only to play one concert, but the crowd reaction was such that both American and French officials asked them to stay in the City of Light for eight weeks. During this time Europe's group performed in a series of concerts with some of the greatest marching bands of France, Britain and Italy. After risking his life for his country, Europe and his band returned triumphantly to New York on Feb. 12, 1919, and soon began a tour of American cities. The final concert on the tour was at Mechanic's Hall in Boston on May 9, 1919. That evening during intermission, one of the "Percussion Twins," Herbert Wright, became angered by Europe's strict direction and attacked him with a pen knife. It was soon discovered at a hospital that Europe's jugular vein had been severed. The next day the papers carried the headlines: "The Jazz King Is Dead." On May 13, Europe received the first public funeral for a African American in New York City. Thousands of people, black and white, turned out to pay their respects in a procession that was his final parade before his burial at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors. Among Europe's compositions are: "St. Louis Blues," "Arabian Nights," "Darktown Strutters' Ball," "Hesitating Blues," "Plantation Echoes," "That Moaning Trombone," " Memphis Blues," "Jazz Baby," "Dancing Deacon," "Clarinet Marmalade," and "My Choc'late Soldier Sammy Boy." Of his contemporaries, James Reese Europe's story is the saddest. Despite Europe's many accomplishments, he never fulfilled his greatest ambition:! to restore the Negro to the Broadway stage. After his death Europe's fame soon turned to obscurity. It would remain for his students, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, to realize his dream. He achieved much in his short life, but his greatest achievements were surely to come, and it is fair to say that the whole history of jazz would have been different had Europe not met an untimely death.

Bio by: Curtis Jackson


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Jeffrey Scott Holland
  • Added: 28 Jun 2002
  • Find A Grave Memorial 6553895
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for James Reese Europe (20 Feb 1880–19 May 1919), Find A Grave Memorial no. 6553895, citing Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Arlington County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .