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Jazz as Patriotic Music: James Reese Europe

by admin on April 24, 2017

During the time of World War I in the early 1900’s, jazz music found its way from America to Europe. This was in part due to American jazz musicians being drafted to battle in countries like France and Britain. Upon their arrival they received great accolades for their cutting-edge genre – a style that seemed to be more unique and different than anything that had been heard up to that point. The band that was formerly known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, and now called the 369th Infantry Regiment, was responsible for overseeing 20% of the territory that the United States was defending (redhot). Not only was this band significantly helpful on the battlefield, but they became extremely successful musicians who gained such popularity that they were eventually nicknamed the “Hellfighters.” The infantry returned to America safely with a massive parade in celebration of their success. Music, especially at this point, jazz, was eking its way into popular culture, and it inspired not only musical passion, but also patriotism and economic growth.

James Reese Europe led the all-Black Hellfighters throughout their stay in Europe. Europe introduced rhythms of ragtime music, adapted this into the military brass band music, and is credited with creating the precursor to big band music (Carney). Once finally deployed back to home soil, the Hellfighters band was ranked among the top in the world. Marching up New York’s 5th Avenue, over a million people cheered for the regiment as they passed through the streets on their way to Harlem (redhot). Their music at war had given an instant boost in morale to its soldiers, allowing them to pursue their goals with great inspiration. Returning from war in February 1919, the music of Europe’s band had everyone from citizens to music producers going mad with excitement. On the heels of this exciting homecoming, the Hellfighters landed a recording deal with one of the biggest names, Pathe, in March 1919 (Redhot).

At the very last concert of their American tour, James Europe was attacked by one his percussionists during the intermission. Violent and good with a knife, the band member Herbert Wright severed Europe’s jugular vein and left him dead by the next day (Morgan). This was devastaing because Europe was known as the King of Jazz at this point, and his loss was felt on both sides of the Atlantic. It is not well-known what exactly the Hellfighters went through on an emotional level while over seas, but one can imagine that although they were attempting to keep spirits high with their music, they also must have seen some pretty horrific things during the war. Even though Europe reached the end of is life much sooner than expected, he always took the high road, saying that Herbert was a good man and that he, “didn’t mean it.” The attitude maintained by Europe shows how music can sustain happiness and hopefulness, even in times of struggle and transformation.

by Will Peterson

Works Cited

  • Levin, Floyd. 1995. “Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry “Hell Fighter’s” Band.
  • Morgan, Thomas. 1992-2014. “James Reece Europe.”
  • Carney, Courtney. 2003 December. “Jazz and the Culture Transformation of America in the 1920’s.” Louisiana State University.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gabrielle April 25, 2017 at 12:39 pm

I thought this was a really succinct and well-written overview of Reese’s career and impact. You did a nice job covering both his contribution to the war effort, and the spread of jazz to Europe.


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