There are great bandleaders, great composers, and great organizers, inventors, and advocates. And then there was James Reese Europe (1881 – 1919), who excelled in every one of those endeavors. While his most famous work was in the realm of ragtime and military marches, he had an impact on American music that reached far beyond any particular genre.
First and foremost, Europe was a Black musician who made Black music. He was always crystal clear and fiercely proud about that. When he worked as a military bandleader during World War I, his colleagues from the allied armies couldn’t match his captivating sound or figure out why, and he let them know that it was all about staying true to his African-American identity in his music.
Europe was born in Alabama and grew up in Washington, DC. In 1904 he moved to New York City and dived head first into the Black theater scene. He primarily worked as an orchestra conductor for musical revues like The Shoo-Fly Regiment, a show for which he also provided one song. That landed him more compositional work in the theater, and eventually he got to conduct for one of the most important Black performers of that era, Bert Williams.
In 1910, Reese embarked on a different endeavor, discovering his gift for artist management and advocacy. First through an organization called the Clef Club and then through the Tempo Club, he acted as a combination traffic cop and union boss, finding and distributing work for hundreds of Black musicians in New York and making sure payment was made. While he was at it, he advocated for the music itself. In 1912 he organized a 125-person spectacle at Carnegie Hall called “A Concert of Negro Music.” In the midst of all this, Europe continued to conduct, compose, and perform; he and the dance team Vernon and Irene Castle are credited with inventing two of the most popular dance crazes of the era, the Turkey Trot and the Foxtrot!
Before the war, he recorded his unique blend of jazz and ragtime on the RCA Victor label, but his more profound and longer-lasting contribution to American composition came when he joined the Army as a commissioned officer during World War I. He scoured America and its territories – particularly Puerto Rico – for musicians to join his military band, which came to be known as the 369th Regiment Harlem Hellfighters Band.
When he came home from the War in 1919, he should have had a long and illustrious career laid out before him. Instead, it all ended within months. A drummer named Herbert Wright, believing he’d been cheated on his pay, cut Europe in the neck with a knife. Not very concerned, Europe stopped by the hospital to be treated. He died an hour later.
Although his life was too short, he packed a lot of important work into it. Enjoy these eight great tracks by James Reese Europe.
- Single: “Irresistible – Tango Argentine”
Label: RCA Victor
This is one of the RCA Victor recordings that Europe cut before joining the Army. The all-Black ensemble, which he managed through his Clef Club, went by the name James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra.
“El Irresistible,” as the song was originally called, was a hit tune during the decade before the War. It was composed by Italian-Argentinian clarinetist Lorenzo Logatti.
- Single: “Castle House Rag”
One of the greatest accolades that can be awarded to an American musician is to have one of their works added to the National Registry of Recordings. Europe was so honored in 2004 for this recording of “Castle House Rag.”
“Castle” here refers not to medieval buildings that royalty lived in, but to the dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle. This extremely popular act – two white people – shocked New York society by hiring Europe’s Black musicians to be their regular backing band.
- Single: “Castles in Europe”
Label: C.L. Barnhouse
- Year: (Modern recording) 2018
The number of recordings of Europe performing is very limited, and all of those have sonic problems. But that does not take away from the importance of the music itself. Thus, his music has been given new life through modern arrangements and recordings.
“Castles in Europe” is the title that RCA Victor originally printed on the labels of “Castle House Rag” in 1914. Europe’s own arrangement was for his 10-man Society Orchestra. This recording of Europe’s beloved ragtime march is an arrangement by Chandler L. Wilson, who was commissioned to write it by the US Army Training and Doctrine Command Band.
- Single: “Broadway Hit Medley”
When Europe was in France during the war, he signed a deal with Pathé, one of the few widely-distributed record companies at the time. This recording, made with his famed Hellfighters regimental band, was completed during his final months overseas in 1919.
This “Broadway Hit Medley” includes four hit tunes from New York revues: “I’ve Got the Blue Ridge Blues,” “Madelon,” “Till We Meet Again,” and “Smiles.” We’re lucky to have such a clean copy of this disc available. The arrangement illustrates Europe’s unique combination of stentorian marching band sound, flowing swing motion, and ragtime syncopation.
- Single: “Memphis Blues”
Label: Radio broadcast
Because he had so few chances to record in studios, it’s fortunate that a few of the Hellfighters’ radio broadcasts from France were captured and preserved.
Here the band is playing one of the favorites among their European colleagues in military band circles, “Memphis Blues.” The French musicians couldn’t believe the rhythm and energy of this tune, and badgered Europe to find out how he did it. His response, reportedly, was that this was how Black music sounded.
- Single: “Jazzola”
This Pathé single features one of Europe’s closest friends, a singer and drummer named Noble Sissle. He knew Europe from New York, in the days before the War, and joined up with his friend, becoming a lieutenant as well as the drum major of the Hellfighters.
The song “Jazzola” was a Foxtrot (a jumpy rhythm in 4/4 time with a strong accent on beats one and four and often including a “backwards” dotted rhythm – shorter note first – also known as a “Scotch snap”). It was composed by popular ragtime and Dixieland pianist J. Russel Robinson.
- Single: “How You Gonna Keep ʼEm Down on the Farm”
This was one of the songs that New York society demanded to hear Europe’s band play over and over when he returned from the War, in the few months he had to bask in his fame.
“How You Gonna Keep ʼEm Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)” jokes about how soldiers from rural areas got spoiled by the worldliness they experienced when they went off to war overseas. It was recorded many times by singing stars like Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor. Here, Sissle is featured again as singer. The band plays the whole 32-bar tune as an instrumental first before the vocal comes in.
- Work: James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin
Live performance at the Kennedy Center
Jason Moran is the artistic director at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. In 2018 he wrote and arranged this 60-minute meditation on the music and influence of James Reese Europe on both the jazz scene and the lives of African American musicians.
Using tunes that Europe either composed or helped popularize as his building materials, pianist Moran has created a medley for piano, wind band, bass, and percussion. If you want to jump past the ethereal opening and right into an energetic, rag-inspired movement, head to 12:09 on this video.