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Biography James Reese Europe, 1881-1919

Image: James Europe
[James Reese Europe] (n.d.). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Eubie Blake said of James Reese Europe, "He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of music." Europe earned this praise by being an unflagging innovator not only in his compositions and orchestrations, but in his organizational ability and leadership. One of America's greatest musicians, he progressed from strength to strength but was pointlessly cut down at what seemed like the pinnacle of his career.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1881, Europe's family moved while he was young to Washington, D.C. In 1904 he moved to New York City, starting out as a pianist. He made connections quickly in the thriving scene of black theater music and began writing--landing one of his songs, "Gay Luneta," in Cole and Johnson's Shoe-Fly Regiment (1906). The next year he composed music for The Black Politician. In 1908 he became musical director for Cole and Johnson's The Red Moon--also contributing two songs. Blake conducted for Bert Williams' last musical Mr. Load of Koal (1909).

In 1910 Europe formed the Clef Club and became its president. This organization not only put together its own orchestra and chorus, but served as a union and contracting agency for black musicians. Soon it had as many as 200 men on its roster. On May 2,1912, the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra put on "A Concert of Negro Music" in Carnegie Hall. The concert was a tremendous success. The 125-man orchestra included a large contingent of banjos and mandolins and presented music by exclusively black composers. By this time, Europe believed that although black musicians respected white music of quality, they did not need to play or imitate it. Instead they had their own music to play which people of all races would want to hear.

Image: Clef ClubEurope left the Clef Club in 1913 and formed another organization, the Tempo Club. The new club served much the same purpose as the Clef Club--booking black musicians for the dances which were sweeping New York City social life. In 1914 Europe formed an association with the popular dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle. Europe invented the turkey-trot with the Castles, and the fox-trot, which is still popular today.

Europe also made a series of recordings in 1914 for the Victor Record Company. These recordings show that Europe's music was like no other music produced at that time or since. Neither jazz nor ragtime, the recordings combine complex melodies and arrangements with driving rhythms. One of these sides, the "The Castles in Europe One-Step (Castle House Rag)," was named to the 2004 National Registry of Recordings.

When World War I became a reality for America, James Europe signed up and was commissioned a lieutenant for the 15th Regiment under Colonel Hayward. He was ordered to put together the best band he could muster, and he did so, going as far afield as Puerto Rico to find the musicians he wanted. His friend Nobel Sissle served as his drum major. This regiment became the 369th Regiment, known as the Hell Fighters, and proceeded to amaze continental Europe--especially France, with its brilliant and original music. Some French musicians, reading from the band's parts, tried to duplicate Europe's band sound but could not, which only caused their admiration to increase. In an interview Europe graciously acknowledged this appreciation and attributed it to the fact that his musicians played their own, black music. Europeans, he argued, simply recognized his music as good because it was original and intrinsically worthy as music.

The United States press did not fail to notice Europe's fame overseas and he was welcomed home in 1919 as a hero. He immediately embarked on a tour with his Hell Fighters band and played one show in New York to rave reviews. Just before the next show in Boston, he was knifed in the neck by a drummer in his band, Herbert Wright, over the latter's delusion that Europe had cheated him. Europe appeared only slightly wounded. He ordered Sissle, who had helped subdue Wright, to carry on in his stead while he went to the hospital. The wound, however, was fatal, and Europe died within an hour. Nobel Sissle later wrote an unpublished memoir of Europe, which is available on American Memory.

The impact of James Reese Europe on American music cannot be overestimated. Perhaps even more than Will Marion Cook, he shaped not only the music of his own time, but of future generations as well. His organizational accomplishments, far exceeding Cook's, prefigured the black-owned, black-run musical organizations that have existed since his time and to this day.