When speaking of jazz, the first topic of conversation is its entertainment value or the music that is known for its artistic impressionism that has more than 100 years of influence. What is not widely known is the music’s influence on history as America’s most dynamic export and one of the United States’ most prolific ambassadors to the world. What emanated as a post-civil war alternative to the atrocities of slavery and racism, jazz music would ultimately flow beyond the boundaries of the United States, while also serving as a calling card for Americans of African descent.
The influence of jazz music on American and world history is the stuff of legend, even more so during World War I, when Americans from many walks of life fought in the war that supposedly would be “the war to end all wars.” Along with that aspect of history, the plight of African Americans in the United States continued to be mired in discrimination based on racism. Despite that treatment, those individuals of African descent were also expected to serve as catalysts for change serving in the U.S. military. History tells the story of that involvement in a manner that speaks volumes well-beyond the confines of racism, while putting those individuals in a more definitive light that continues to this day. The story of how those soldiers invented jazz has already been told many times over; but there is another story of how America brought jazz to Europe for the very first time, which is being examined 100 years after the very first concert was held in France.
During World War I four segregated troops of black soldiers were sent to France, with one being led by Lt. James Reese Europe, a New York bandleader. They were sent to France to serve as musicians. The unit was known as the 369th Harlem Infantry Band; soon thereafter, a new sensation was introduced to the people of France. This was music that was born during the post-slavery renaissance of change and would become a French phenomenon beyond any expectation. Jazz was heard for the first-time making sounds that emanated from “the artistic impressionism that comes from within” and European culture exploded.
James Reese Europe enlisted in the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard in 1916. The unit became the 369th Regiment and Europe became the commander of a machine gun squad and formed the “Harlem Hell Fighters Band.” Primarily configured as a regimental brass band, the group would eventually march and play throughout the United Kingdom and European continent. During the war they were charged with lifting morale and keeping soldiers entertained. Their music was a jazz activated musical experience that many Americans and most Europeans had not ever experienced before. Throughout the war, Europe wore two hats, one as a machine gun commander and as a bandleader, the latter being in so much demand he was often out on tour with the “Harlem Hell Fighters.” So great was this group of band members, they were often heard playing for General “Black Jack” Pershing and President Raymond Poincaré, and it was noted that a French Army officer named General Henri Gouraud, “would risk defeat to travel 100 miles to hear Jimmy’s jazz band,” as quoted in a 1919 New York Times article.
Upon return of the 369th to the United States, Europe and the band were part of a parade in their honor up Fifth Avenue in New York City. Europe was bestowed the honor of America’s “Jazz King” and later gained more prominence performing throughout the United States, including signing a recording contract. Unfortunately at the height of his fame as a renowned bandleader and the person most associated with introducing jazz to Europe, his life ended tragically at the hands of one of his band members. What is most interesting is how James Reese Europe met his demise, one that is viewed as senseless in context and a waste.
According to a New York Times article published May 10, 1919, Europe’s throat was cut by drummer Herbert Wright during a conversation regarding his play. The attack by Wright was brutal and fatal, for which he would later be convicted of taking James’ life. Without any measure of doubt, Europe’s impact on jazz is well-documented whereby his accomplishments as a leader has had a huge impact on music as a whole, including that found in European culture. Accordingly, James Reese Europe believed “friends were won by playing music that was ours,” In retrospect, jazz is America’s music and thanks to James Reese Europe, it remains America’s most prolific ambassador to the world. In response to Europe’s contributions to jazz, upon his death New York City provided an official funeral for James Reese Europe—the first ever held for an African-American who introduced jazz music to Europe and beyond.
Sheldon T. Nunn