Sometimes a narrative reveals itself to you when you’re digging around in the archives. It’s a fascinating way to come upon a story. Since songs are the focus of this blog, it always starts with a song. This song sets the scene as the story behind it unfolds. We find ourselves in a room in New York in February 1914 with James Reese Europe and his orchestra, Europe’s Society Orchestra. Presumably there’s a phonograph operator or technician to oversee the recording. There’s also an Englishman, Vernon Castle, and his wife, New Yorker Irene Castle, a couple famed for invigorating the popularity of modern dancing in the 1910s.
James Reese Europe was a leading figure in the New York black theatre music scene. He played piano in many bands and composed music and songs for many theatrical productions. In 1910 he founded the Clef Club, which established its own orchestra and chorus but also served as a union and contracting agency for black musicians, with as many as 200 men on its roster. He was known as a tireless innovator for his composition and orchestration, but also for his natural leadership and organisational ability. His music borrowed from and built upon African-American folk music, incorporating elements of ragtime and other contemporary styles – his name is often mentioned when people discuss the beginnings of jazz. He firmly believed that black musicians did not need to play or imitate white music, though they respected any music of quality. Instead they had their own musical tradition and their own musical style which people of all races would want to hear. His orchestra, sometimes as large as 125 musicians, included banjos and mandolins and presented music exclusively by black composers. In May 1912 The Clef Club Orchestra performed a ‘Concert of Negro Music’ in Carnegie Hall. It was a resounding success. The Clef Club was instrumental in changing attitudes towards black musicians, negotiating better salaries and working conditions for its members. The Clef Club Orchestra played in Carnegie Hall again in 1913 and 1914. As their reputation grew, it became quite enviable for New York’s high society to boast a genuine Clef Club orchestra at a social event.
This breaking down of racial barriers was expedited when Europe met Vernon and Irene Castle at such a social event in 1913. Famous and sought-after dancers, popularisers of modern dance, the Castles were excited and intrigued by the syncopated rhythms and unique sound of the group’s instrumentation. They made Europe their musical director and insisted on using Clef Club musicians in all their engagements, even in those venues which were not welcoming to black people. Their visibility and popularity made Jim Europe and his music very famous across all strata of society, this was a great catalyst in further changing attitudes towards black musicians. When Europe’s Society Orchestra entered the studios of Victor Talking Machine Company on December 29, 1913, it was the first ever recording of a black orchestra.
Europe’s association with the Castles continued until Vernon Castle joined England’s war effort as an airman with the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. While serving in Europe, he completed 300 combat missions. Flying over the Western Front in 1917, he shot down two aircraft and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was posted to the U.S. to train American pilots and died near Fort Worth, Texas on February 15, 1918, aged 30, in an aviation accident.
In late 1916, Europe joined the newly formed 15th Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Commissioned a machine gun regiment lieutenant, he was soon asked to join the regimental band. He became bandleader, recruiting musicians and shaping their sound. The band became the 369th New York Regimental Band, the “Harlem Hellfighters”. According to The Parlor Songs Academy: On New Year’s Day 1918, Europe stepped off a troop ship onto French soil at the port city of Brest, where, in the midst of cheering crowds, he led the band in the playing of the French national anthem, “The Marseilles”, although at first those gathered on the dock did not recognize the tune due to Europe’s unique arrangement. The band was received so enthusiastically that officials sent it on a tour of France, entertaining troops and citizens.
There followed a series of concerts with the greatest marching bands of France, Britain and Italy. Performances were often staged in hospitals to boost morale among wounded soldiers. After this tour, James Europe himself saw combat assigned to the French Army’s 16th Division in the Argonne Forest. This is related in Noble Sissle’s Memoirs of Lieutenant “Jim” Europe, in a passage from a letter contributed by Colonel William Hayward, Jim Europe’s commanding officer: A statement of Lieutenant Europe’s service would not be complete if confined to the work he did as the organizer and leader of this famous band. For many months he occupied the dual position of leader of the band, and officer of a machine gun company. When the regiment went into action in March, 1918, Lieutenant Europe was an officer of the machine gun company of the battalion which first went into the trenches, and as such was beyond all doubt the first Negro officer under fire in this great war.
On February 12th, 1919, the 15th Infantry returned to New York. They were honoured with a parade on February 17th, greeted by thousands of people, black and white, as they marched through the city. The band’s music could scarcely be heard above the roar of the crowd as they marched up Fifth Avenue. After this, Jim Europe set about booking a triumphant homecoming tour for the 369th New York Regimental Band. It was on this tour that Jim Europe met his untimely end, having survived the First World War unscathed.
James Reese Europe died on May 9, 1919. New York City honoured him with a public funeral, another first for a black American, and he was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He left behind a wife, Willie Angrom Starke, and a son (named James Reese Europe Jr) through a relationship with entertainer Bessie Simms. Eubie Blake, African-American composer, lyricist and pianist with Europe’s Society Orchestra later said of him, “He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of music.”