James Reese Europe (1881-1919)

James Reese Europe and band members, 1918
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James Reese Europe, one of the first African Americans to record music in the United States, was born on February 22, 1881 in Mobile, Alabama to Henry and Lorraine Europe.  When he was ten, his family moved to Washington D.C. where he began to study violin with Enrico Hurlei, the assistant director of the Marine Corps Band.  In 1904, Reese moved to New York to continue his musical studies.

In 1910, Europe founded one of the most well known African American organizations during that time, The Clef Club, a part union and part fraternal organization which owned a building on West 53rd Street.  Europe was the Clef Club’s first elected president as well as the conductor of its symphony orchestra.  The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912 and later in 1913 and 1914.  The Carnegie Hall concerts gave the Clef Club Orchestra respectability in upper class circles and as a result, they were engaged to play at many of the most elite functions in New York, London (UK), Paris (France), and on yachts traveling worldwide.  The Orchestra generated over $100,000 in bookings during the period.  In 1913 Europe also made the first of a series of phonograph records for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

At the beginning of World War I, Reese joined New York Army National Guard as a private but shortly after passing the officer’s exam was commissioned as a Lieutenant.  He was assigned to the all-black 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment popularly known as the Harlem Hellfighters.  When his musical background became known he was asked by his commanding officer, Colonel William Hayward, to form a military band as part of his combat unit.  Hayward told Europe to get musicians wherever he could, and Reese did just that.  Europe knew that it would be difficult to convince musicians in New York to enlist in the military to play music, so he went as far as traveling to Puerto Rico to recruit the needed musicians for his band.  His band became known as the 396th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band.

James Reese Europe Poster
James Reese Europe Poster

The Hell Fighters Band entertained troops and citizens in every city they visited and was received with great enthusiasm.  He was sent from the front to lead his band at an Allied conference in Paris where they were only supposed to play one concert.  The crowd’s reaction was so great that both American and French officials asked them to stay to perform for eight more weeks.

Europe and his band returned to New York on February 12, 1919.  Soon after, they began a tour of American cities and started recording their songs in the studio.  Through his music, Europe brought ragtime out of the bordellos and juke joints into mainstream society and elevated African American music into an accepted art form.  He was a household name in New York’s music world and on the dance scene nationwide.  On the final performance in Boston, Massachusetts of the band’s American tour, Herbert Wright, one of the “percussion twins,” became angered with Europe and attacked him with a knife during intermission.  Europe did not survive the attack.  He died in Boston on May 10, 1919 at the age of 38.  James Reese Europe was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.