Europe, James Reese 1880-1919

views updated May 29 2018

James Reese Europe 1880-1919

Musician, bandleader, musical director, composer, union organizer, soldier

At a Glance

The Clef Club

The International Dance Craze

The 369th Infantry Band

Selected compositions


During the first two decades of the twentieth century, James Reese Europe emerged as the most renowned African American bandleader of New Yorks entertainment world. Famed for his syncopated orchestral accompaniment of the dancing team of Irene and Vernon Castle, Europe became a major figure in promoting the popularity of social dancing and engendered a ragtime-based music that contributed to the emergence of jazz. During World War I, his 369th Infantry band was hailed by French and American troops as the finest ensemble in the Allied Army. A founding member of the black musicians union the Clef Club, Europe became a major force in refining and bolstering the image of African American musicians. As legendary ragtime pianist Eubie Blake stated in the biography Eubie Blake, To colored musicians he was as importanthe did as much for them as [civil rights leader] Martin Luther King.

James Reese Europe was born on February 22, 1880, in Mobile, Alabama. His father, Henry J. Europe, worked as a news reporter, barber, and teacher and subsequently acquired a position with the Mobile Post Office. When Europe was nine years old, Europes father accepted a job with the National Postal Service, and in 1899 he moved his family to Washington, DC. Europe received formal piano instruction from his mother, Lorraine, and studied his fathers improvisational skills on fiddle and banjo. In 1891 famed bandmaster John Phillip Sousa moved near the Europe home. Sousas musicians often gave instruction to promising young African American children. One of the selected students, Europe received violin instruction from Sousas band director, Enrico Hurlei.

At Washingtons respected M. Street High School, Europe joined the school drill company and served as the corps color sergeant. As Reid Badger pointed out in A Life in Ragtime, Europes cadet training would later prove useful when he sought to organize the 15th New York Infantry regiment in World War I. After school the young man helped organize church concerts at Lincoln Memorial Church and presented violin recitals with his sister, Mary.

When his father died, 19-year-old Europe sought to support the family by becoming a professional musician. He left home to join his brother, John, a successful

At a Glance

Born William James Reese Europe, February 22, 1880, in Mobile, AL; died as a result of stab wounds, Boston, MA, 1919; son of Henry J. (a reporter, barber, teacher, and postal worker) and Lorraine Europe; married Willie Angrom Stark; children: (with dancer Bessie Simms), James Europe, Jr.

Became professional musician, New York City, c. 1899; became musical director, 1904; joined Memphis Students orchestra, 1905; served as musical director for The Shoo-Fly Regiment, 19061907, and Black Politician, 19071908; organized and elected first president of musicians union the Clef Club, 1910; directed Clef Club orchestra at Carnegie Hall, 1912; musical director and composer for dance team Irene and Vernon Castle, 19131915; recorded for Victor record label, 1913; founded Tempo Club orchestra, 1914; joined New York National Guard, 1916; served in 369th Infantry in France, 19181919; recorded for Pathe label and toured with 369th Infantry band, 1919.

cabaret pianist, in New York. At first Europe auditioned at clubs on violin, but later, in an effort to accommodate popular taste, he switched to mandolin and piano. Like numerous aspiring African American musicians, composers, and entertainers, he became a fixture at Jimmy Marshalls Hotel on 53rd Street. In an era when black musicians were barred from white unions, Marshalls served as an important meeting place where musicians found work and discussed music. Located in the heart of Black Bohemia, the Marshall Hotel was, wrote David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue, two large brownstones, gas-lit, red-plushly overfurnished in the style of the day, an elegant boarding house with just a touch of refined bordello. With the help of the distinguished company at Marshalls, Europe secured private jobs at parties, which introduced him to the financial elite of eastern white society.

Europes first theater engagement came in 1904 when he directed the musical farce Trip to Africa an experience that opened new horizons for Europe, who, over the next six years, devoted himself to the development of black musical theater. In 1905 he joined the 20-member orchestra of Ernest Hogans song-and-dance troupe, the Memphis Studentsthe ensembles name was a reference to the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, who hailed from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Featuring Europe and the talented singer Abbie Mitchell, the Memphis Students found great success at Hammersteins Roof Garden at Broadway and 42nd Street. During this long-running engagement, Europe led an orchestra consisting of mandolins, harp guitars, banjos, a saxophone, and drums.

Though Europe continued to perform with the Memphis Students, he became active in a number of other black musical productions. Between 1906 and 1907, he served as music director of Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnsons three-act comedy The Shoo-Fly Regiment, and in 1907 and 1908, he provided this service for S. H. Dudley and Steven B. Cassins production The Black Politician. In 1908 Europe was invited to become a charter member of the Frogs, an 11-member club dedicated to promoting the Negro theatrical profession and its image as a serious art form. That year he also spent a great deal of time preparing the orchestra and cast for the debut of Cole and Johnsons comedy production Red Moon. Following the shows successful eastern and midwestern tours, it had a week-long engagement at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway.

The Clef Club

In 1910 Europe gave up his musical duties to help found the Clef Club, a black musicians union. Elected as the organizations first president, Europe sought to achieve higher musical standards, equitable salaries, and better treatment from white employers. Europe upheld a strict dress code, stipulating that musicians wear tuxedos on jobs booked in advance and suit and bow ties for pick-up dates. Located across the street from the Marshall Hotel, the Clef Club became a central booking agency, concert hall, and musician meeting place. As Eileen Southern pointed out in The Music of Black Americans, the Clef Club boasted that it could furnish a dance orchestra of from three to thirty men upon request at any time, day or night. Unlike other elite African American musical associations, the club accepted both reading musiciansmostly trained on violin, cello, viola, and double bassand non-reading instrumentalists who played banjos, mandolins, bandoris, and harp guitars.

Under Europes direction, the clubs initial 100-man orchestra took the name the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra. It was an unconventional aggregation that consisted of mandolins in place of first and second violins. Its also featured violins, banjos, harp guitars, cellos, trap drums, and timpani. Not long after its formation, the group expanded to include an organ, two flutes, two clarinets, and ten pianos. In Jazz to Swing, Thomas J. Hennessey explained Europes demand that musicians play only the written score, writing, while Europe saw some distinct musical characteristics, particularly in rhythm, he stressed the written arrangement and exact performance over spontaneous improvisation. His repertoire included marches, rags, vaudeville numbers, minstrel tunes, operatic medleys, and popular songs. When not composing and organizing music for the orchestras next performance, Europe involved himself in community work and appeared as a guest director for various black bands.

The International Dance Craze

On May 2,1912, Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall, marking the first time an African American ensemble had performed at the famous concert hall. In A Life in Ragtime Reid stressed the importance of the Carnegie Hall concert for Europe, and how unlike the earlier club concerts, there would be no lengthy vaudeville or minstrel program, nor any all-night dance to accompany the orchestral performance. Always concerned with maintaining a proper image, Europe broadened the musical scope of the program, offering a dignified repertoire of secular and religious, traditional and modern, and vocal and instrumental performances. Jammed to capacity, black and white concertgoers sat together in the hall, their thundering applause hailing the syncopated music of Europes 125-man orchestra. The success of the Carnegie Hall concert brought prestige to African American musicians who found new employment opportunities at elite white hotels and private parties in the U.S. and Europe.

Following a successful second Carnegie Hall concert and a triumphant eastern tour with the Clef Club Orchestra in 1913, Europe joined forces with the internationally acclaimed ballroom dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle. Restricted by the non-ragtime rhythms of white ballroom orchestras, which failed to offer the syncopation required for their modern dance numbers, the Castles, on hearing Europes ensemble, were immediately drawn to the proficiency and unique sound of the groups instrumentation. Hired by the Castles, Europe provided them with accompaniment that took the New York social world by storm. As Hennessey noted in From Jazz to Swing, While black musicians had played for white dancers before this, the enormous visibility of the Castles and Europe had a profound impact on the opportunities for black musicians, opening doors perhaps more directly than Teddy Wilsons appearance with [swing bandleader] Benny Goodman.

When the Castles and their wealthy benefactors opened a dance school, the Castle House, Europes Society Orchestra became the in-house accompaniment. At swank Castle House, wrote David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue, long lines of young and old, rich and struggling filed through to be served tea by a socialite, to bunny hug or camel walk to Europes music, to watch the Castles trot and, with luck, even dance with themall for two dollars. Months later, when the Castles opened the Sans Souci, a short-lived nightclub on 42nd Street, Europe provided music for that establishment as well.

On December 29, 1913, Europe and his orchestra began a series of recordings for Victor records, marking the first time in history that a major record label had secured a contract with an African American musician and an all-black orchestra. The Victor sides, as Hennessey explained, are a valid sample of tangos and fox trots that Europe played. The sound is clearly stiff instrumental ragtime, adhering to the written score and featuring two violins, cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano, five banjo-mandolins, cello, string bass, and drums. Apart from recordings, Europe gained further popularity when the Castles, against the opposition of the citys white musicians union, brought his orchestra to Broadway to play at Hammersteins Victoria Theatre.

Soon Europe became one of the hardest-working musicians in New York City. Resigning from the Clef Club, he established his own organization, the Tempo Club. In April 1914, he embarked on The Castle Whirlwind Tour, which took his orchestra on a four-week, 30-city engagement that traveled as far west as Omaha, Nebraska, and as far north as Toronto, Canada. With his baton swinging, tall and dignified Jim Europe received widespread praise for the sophistication of his 200-man orchestra. The acclaimed tour culminated with a dance held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. As music and cultural historians have noted, the tour not only contributed to the national dance craze, it directly led to the development of the trap drum set as an integral part of the black dance orchestra; until then, the drum kit had been a novelty item of vaudeville theater.

Over the next two years, Europe continued to perform with the Castles and made numerous appearances with his Tempo Club Orchestra. Because of the popularity of Europes orchestras, he eventually pressured New Yorks white-led American Federation of Labor (AFL) musicians union to accept black members. Though this triumphant step did not end the practice of unequal pay and working conditions for blacks, it did offer greater work opportunities to African American musicians, who were becoming in great demand around the city.

By the summer of 1915, at least 15 Europe-organized bands were performing at theaters and private parties on the East Coast. Among those working with Europe were Noble Sissle and ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, who described the famed bandleader, as quoted in Reids A Life in Ragtime, as an adept businessman and a master thinker. The vogue of African American theater, however, would soon fall into quick decline. In 1916, as World War I raged in Europe and motion pictures drew crowds away from concert stages, many black musicians found themselves out of work.

The 369th Infantry Band

On September 18, 1916, Europe joined the newly formed 15th Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Assigned as a private to a machine gun company, Europe did not join the army with the intention of becoming a military musician; rather, he believed that the establishment of an African American military unit in Harlem would inspire greater civic pride among blacks. Commissioned a machine gun regiment lieutenant, he was asked, in the spring of 1916, to join the regimental band. He initially declined, explaining that his duties at the Tempo Club afforded him little time for such a venture. But a few months later, realizing the positive image that could be promoted by such a unit, he joined the band as a sergeant (at this time no officers were commissioned in army bands).

Over the next months, Europe joined the regiments musicians, such as former musical associate Noble Sissle, in recruiting bandmembers. In 1917 he traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in search of reed players. Returning to New York with new recruits, he joined the 15th, which embarked for field training near Pough-keepsie, New York. Europe joined the 3rd Battalion at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina following a period of training and band rehearsal at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

On New Years 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. For the next few months, the band toured throughout France, performing for crowds of enthusiastic soldiers, school children, and townspeople. Due to the American militarys racial policies prohibiting the mixing of black and white troops, the 15th New York became incorporated into the U.S. Army 369th Infantry and was subsequently assigned to the French Armys 16th Division. To take charge of his machine gun company, Europe left the regiment band under the leadership of bandmaster Eugene Francis Mikell. On the front lines in the Argonne Forest, Lieutenant Europe became the first African American officer to lead black troops into combat. On one occasion, armed with a pistol, he went on a night patrol in no-mans-land, crawling on his hands and knees as the shells of enemy guns burst overhead.

Europe was sent to Paris for rehabilitation after a German poison gas attack. Returned to his band, he led the ensemble for a triumphant performance at the Theatre Champs-Elysees. In his recollection of the bands appearance at the internationally renowned theater, Europe stated, as quoted in Readings in Black American Music, Before we played two numbers the audience went wild. We had conquered Paris. The band appeared at hospitals and various gatherings during its eight-week stint in the French capital. Though they played written arrangements, the bands use of blue notes, slurs, and unorthodox horn-tonguing techniques brought them praise from member of Allied bands and the French people, who, as Reid suggested in A Life in Ragtime, were treated to a primitive sort of big band jazz.

On February 17, 1919, the highly decorated 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard was welcomed home by thousands who turned out to watch it march up Fifth Avenue. Marching in the closed-shoulder-ranks style of the French Army, the unit proceeded west on 110th Street, and then turned north to Harlem. A member of the 369th, Captain Arthur Little recalled the parade, as quoted in The Black Soldier: I marched at the head of the 1st Battalionabout 60 paces from Jim Europes band of 60 pieces of brass and reed, and a field section of 30 trumpets and drums. During the entire progress of the seven-mile march, I scarcely heard ten consecutive bars of music. So great were the roars of cheers, the applause, and the shouts of personal greetings.

Back in New York, Europe toured with his military band and made plans to create a Negro symphony orchestra. He stated, as quoted in The Music of Black Americans, I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that negroes should write negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies.We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines. But Europes vision of an all-black symphony was abruptly extinguished on May 19,1919, when, inexplicably, he was stabbed to death by his 16-year-old snare drummer, Herbert Wright, in the dressing room of Bostons Mechanic Hall.

Despite his untimely death, Europes commitment to the creation of a unique African American music would ultimately emerge in a new form known as jazz. His contributions to musical theater and African American society-band music would live on in the work of such greats as William Marion Cooke, Noble Sissle, and William Grant Still, and in the sophisticated jazz dance bands of the 1920s and 1930s. His intelligence and professionalism helped break down racial barriers, which enabled thousands of black musicians to attain work in ballrooms throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Selected compositions

My Heart Goes Bumping and Thumping for You, 1904.

Obadiah (You Took Advantage of Me), Gotham Music, 1905.

When I Rule the Town (from the play the Black Politician), 1907.

I Aint Had No Loving in a Long Time (music by Europe; from the play Red Moon), 1908.

Clef Club March, 1910.

Castle House Rag, 1914.

Castle Lame Duck Waltz, 1914.

Castle Walk, 1914.

Fox Trot, 1914.

Hilo; Hawaiian Waltz, 1916.

Ive the Lovines Love for You (with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake), 1918.

Jazz Baby, 1919.

On Patrol in No Mans Land (with Sissle and Blake), 1919.

All of No Mans Land Is Ours, 1919.


David, Jay, and Elaine Crane, The Black Soldier: From the Revolution to Vietnam, William Morrow, 1971.

Hennessey, Thomas J., From Jazz to Swing: African-American Musicians and Their Music 1890-935, Wayne State University Press, 1994.

Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Readings in Black Music, compiled and edited by Eileen Southern, W.W. Norton, 1971.

Reid, Badger, A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Rose, Al, Eubie Blake, Schirmer Books, 1979.

Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, W.W. Norton, 1971.

John Cohassey

Europe, James Reese

views updated May 08 2018

Europe, James Reese

February 22, 1881
May 9, 1919

Born in Mobile, Alabama, composer and conductor James Reese Europe spent his formative years in Washington, D.C., where his father held a position with the U.S. Postal Service. The family was unusually musical; his brother, John, became a noted ragtime pianist, and his sister, Mary, was an accomplished concert pianist, choral director, and music teacher in the Washington public schools. James Europe attended M Street High School and studied violin, piano, and composition with Enrico Hurlie of the Marine Corps Band and Joseph Douglass, grandson of Frederick Douglass. Other musical influences included Harry T. Burleigh (especially his arrangements of African-American spirituals), organist Melville Charlton, and composer Will Marion Cook.

Like Cook and Burleighwho had both studied with the celebrated Bohemian composer Antonín Dvorák while he was directing the Prague National Conservatory of MusicEurope accepted Dvorák's assessment of the importance of African-American folk music as a basis for an American national music. He did not believe, however, as did many at the time, that popular forms of musical expression were necessarily vulgar or lowbrow and therefore lacked potential musical value. He was a consistent champion of African-American music and musical artistry at every level and in any form, including those (like jazz) that had yet to emerge fully.

After moving to New York City in 1903, Europe established himself as a leading composer and music director in black musical theater, contributing to such productions as John Larkins's A Trip to Africa (1904), Ernest Hogan's Memphis Students (1905), Cole and Johnson's Shoo-fly Regiment (19061907) and Red Moon (19081909), S. H. Dudley's Black Politician (19071908), and Bert Williams's Mr. Lode of Koal (1910). In April 1910 Europe and several fellow professionals (including Ford Dabney, William Tyers, and Joe Jordan) formed the Clef Club, a union and booking agency that substantially improved the working conditions for black musicians in New York City. Europe was elected president and conductor of the club's concert orchestra, a 125-member ensemble whose unusual instrumentation (consisting primarily of plucked or strummed instruments) he felt to be better suited to the performance of authentic African-American music than that of the standard symphony orchestra. The orchestra's 1912 Concert of Negro Music at Carnegie Hall was a historic event, and Europe and the orchestra repeated their appearance on New York's most famous stage in 1913 and 1914.

In addition to developing "an orchestra of Negroes which will be able to take its place among the serious musical organizations of the country," Europe realized the practical importance to black musicians of taking advantage of the increasing demand for popular music to support the expansion of nightlife. From 1910 to 1914 he built the Clef Club (and later, the Tempo Club) into the greatest force for organizing and channeling the efforts of black musicians in New York, providing musicians for vaudeville orchestras, hotels, cabarets, and dance halls, as well as for private society parties and dances. In 1913, as a result of his success in providing dance orchestras for the eastern social elite, Europe was recruited as musical director for the legendary dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle. Between them, they revolutionized American social dancing by making the formerly objectionable "ragtime" dances (turkey trots and one-steps, which had been derived from traditional African-American dance practice) widely acceptable to mainstream America. The most lasting of the Castle dances, the foxtrot, was conceived by Europe and Vernon Castle after a suggestion by W. C. Handy. Europe's association with the Castles led to a recording contract with Victor Records, the first ever for a black orchestra leader.

Late in 1916 Europe enlisted in the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment (Colored) of New York's National Guard and was commissioned as a lieutenant. Largely as an aid to recruitment, he organized a regimental brass band that became, when the Fifteenth was mobilized and sent overseas, one of the most celebrated musical organizations of World War I. As a machine-gun company commander, Europe also served in the front lines and was the first black American officer in the Great War to lead troops into combat. Upon his return to the United States in early 1919, he was hailed as America's "jazz king" for incorporating blues, ragtime, and jazz elements into his arrangements for the band. He received another recording contract and embarked upon a nationwide tour. During a performance in Boston, however, Europe was cut in a backstage altercation with a mentally disturbed member of the band. The injury did not appear serious at first, but his jugular vein had in fact been punctured, and he died before the bleeding could be stopped. Europe's funeral was the first public funeral ever held for an African American in New York City; he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Although Europe was not a composer of major concert works, his more than one hundred songs, rags, waltzes, and marches include several ("On the Gay Luneta," "Castle House Rag," "Castle Walk," "Hi There," "Mirandy") that exhibit unusual lyricism and rhythmic sophistication for their day. But it was as an organizer of musicians, as a conductor who championed the works of other African-American composers, and as an arranger and orchestrator that his genius was most pronounced and his influence the greatest. In this regard Europe may properly be seen as an original catalyst in the development of orchestral jazz, initiating a line of development that would eventually lead to Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Among the many individuals who acknowledged his pioneering influence were Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle (whose epoch-making 1921 musical Shuffle Along helped restore black artistry to the mainstream of American musical theater), and composer George Gershwin.

See also Blake, Eubie; Burleigh, Harry; Jazz; Musical Theater


Badger, R. Reid. "James Reese Europe and the Prehistory of Jazz." American Music 7 (1989): 4868.

Badger, R. Reid. A Life in Ragtime. New York: Oxford, 1995.

Harris, Stephen L. Harlem's Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2003.

Welborn, Ron. "James Reese Europe and the Infancy of Jazz Criticism." Black Music Research Journal 7 (1987): 3544.

r. reid badger (1996)
Updated bibliography

Europe, James Reese

views updated May 11 2018

Europe, James Reese

Europe, James Reese, famed pre-jazz bandleader, pianist, violinist; b. Mobile, Ala., Feb. 22, 1881; d. Boston, May 10, 1919. One of the most celebrated musicians of his day, he recorded arrangements of ragtime and dance numbers between 1913 and 1919, with perhaps a bit of improvisation, that provide an important picture of the music that was around while jazz was developing. His family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was 10. He studied music there, and first went to N.Y. in 1904. He toured as musical director for traveling shows, then organized the New Amsterdam Musical Association in N.Y. (1906), and subsequently formed the Clef Club Orch. Through the 1910s he led his own “Society Orch/7 which accompanied dancers Vernon and Irene Castle in “Watch Your Step” (1912). Then, as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army he directed the 369th infantry Regiment Band, known as The Hell-Fighters, which toured Europe during World War I. The band returned to the U.S.A. in February 1919 and began a triumphant tour of American cities. During a performance in Boston, Europe was stabbed while in his dressing-room by a snare-drummer in the band, Private Herbert Wright. He died shortly afterwards.


Featuring Noble Sissle (1919); James Reese Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment Band (1919).


R. Badger, A Life in Ragtime; The Biography of James Reese Europe (N.Y, 1995).

—John Chilton/Lewis Porter

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