Free concert explores James Reese Europe, a towering ghost on the musical landscape

At a time when W.C. Handy was paving the way for the blues in the United States, another man reigned over popular music. When William Still Grant was setting a course for blacks in classical music and Louis Armstrong was just finding himself musically, another bandleader stood above them all.

Before there was Duke or Count, there was Europe.

James Reese Europe, an innovator at morphing ragtime into the big band jazz sound that would come from the Harlem Renaissance and dominate American music for decades, is one of the greatest American musicians of the 20th century and yet, to much of the music world, even aficionados of jazz history, he remains a mystery.

“He’s the most important musician we’ve never heard of. I mean nobody has heard of him,” said Richard Birkemeier, professor emeritus of music at Cal State Long Beach.

Except for a flurry of attention for Europe during celebrations of the centennial of the end of World War I, he remains a ghost on the musical landscape. Even many of those who may have heard of him may actually have not heard Europe’s music.

The Americus Brass Band hopes to rectify that. On Sunday, the band will stage a free concert at the Daniel Recital Hall at Cal State Long Beach, Sunday at 3 p.m., to celebrate the release of its album of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters’ Band music. The Americus Brass Band is a professional ensemble that has been around for more than 40 years. Best known for its Civil War era marches, in recent years it has expanded and diversified its oeuvre.

Americus Brass Band. Photo courtesy of Americus Brass Band.

The concert also commemorates the centennial of lost recording sessions from 1919 when Europe and his band were at the height of their fame. More than 20 of their most popular songs were recorded, including several blues pieces by Handy and two arranged by Still.

How did such a seminal moment in jazz and music history fly by so utterly under the radar? Three things conspired.

Within days of the recordings, Europe was dead. In May of 1919, while on tour in Boston, band drummer Herbert Wright stabbed Europe in the neck with a penknife. At first, the wound appeared superficial, but Europe died hours later at a local hospital when the bleeding could not be stopped.

Second, the sessions were recorded on wax for French label Pathe. The technology was old and quality poor. Electronic recording would soon be introduced, revolutionizing the process, but Europe was not around to benefit.

Finally, the sheet music and session notes disappeared, either destroyed or merely discarded.

Time passed, as did the memory of Europe, which is too bad because his life was somewhat mythic.

“The loss is incalculable”

In the wake of Europe’s death, there was an outpouring of grief. A story in The New York Times read, “The loss is incalculable. Ragtime may be Negro music, but it is American Negro music. More alive than much other American music. And, Europe was one of the Americans who was contributing most to its development.”

A racially diverse crowd of thousands of mourners attended a public funeral and procession. It was the first time New York City afforded such an honor to a black private citizen.

Jerry Wheeler, a trombonist who also sings with the Americus Brass Band notes the irony that one of the great jazz pioneers “died just before the Jazz Age.”

Birkemeier agrees, adding that the “whole history of jazz would have changed” had Europe lived.

Ray Briggs, a professor of jazz and music history said when Europe died, he was perched to become a titan.

“Music usually reinvents itself after war,” he said. “He was about to enter that space. When you look at the Jazz Age, he’d have been one we’d be talking about. What he was doing was foreshadowing where music was going.”

At the height of his career, Europe enlisted in the armed forces in 1916 and was eventually assigned to the 369th Infantry Regiment. The unit, nicknamed the Hellfighters, would become the most decorated United States combat unit in the war, this despite being assigned to the French because they were deemed unworthy of representing the United States.

Europe was a lieutenant and machine gunner and was among the first Americans to see combat action when he accompanied a French patrol across No Man’s Land, that area between combat lines and often a killing field—Europe would later write and record a song about the experience—and was injured in a gas attack while on the front lines.

Somehow, he also found time to direct the regimental band which became immensely popular with both troops and French civilians.

“They brought music and jazz to hell on earth,” Wheeler said.

On New Year’s Day 1918, the Hellfighters’ Band went to Paris. When the band broke out into its jazzed up version “Le Marseillaise,” the national anthem of France, the audience didn’t recognize it at first.

Europe conducts his Hellfighters Band. Library of Congress.

Since Europe’s military band was arguably the most popular since John Philip Sousa, it was inevitable he’d be compared to the “March King,” but comparing a Sousa march to a Hellfighters rendition is akin to comparing a standard version of the Star Spangled Banner to Marvin Gaye’s seminal, soulful version at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.

The Europe songs “were not the way Sousa played it. [Souza] would probably pass out,” Birkemeier said. “People went wild. They had never heard of anything like it.”

Savior

Europe was already an acclaimed band leader when he enlisted. His U.S. bands, such as the Clef Club Orchestra and Society Orchestra, ruled the New York dance hall scene; he’s credited with helping popularize the foxtrot. In 1912, the Clef Club Orchestra played at Carnegie Hall in what was dubbed “A Unique Concert of Negro Music.” Today, that date is recognized as the first jazz performance in the famed hall.

The orchestra’s 125-piece orchestra consisted of traditional instruments, but added mandolins, guitars and banjos, serving up a gumbo of ragtime, blues and minstrel music later dubbed proto-jazz. The music also helped to “legitimize” African-American music forms to a larger, read white, audience.

Europe was an advocate for black musicians. The Clef Club, which Europe founded in 1910, was the first union for New York’s black musicians. In addition to booking acts, it fought for equal pay and conditions to those of white performers.

“He was way ahead of his time,” Briggs said.

Because of Europe’s activism and support of black artists, the country lost more than just an accomplished musician in the view of many. Jazz composer and pianist Eubie Blake said, “People don’t realize what we lost when we lost Jim Europe. He was the savior of Negro musicians, in a class with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Briggs said because entertainment and sports were among the few avenues where blacks could advance, Europe felt responsible for representing music that was not only legitimate art but distinct and uniquely black.

“We have developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what else you might think, is different and distinctive,” he said. “My success had come… from a realization of the advantages of sticking to the music of my own people.”

Finding a written record

Missing in the hunt for Europe’s music was the sheet music and arrangements.

“No one could find the original music,” Birkemeier said.

While some of the music in the tribute album came from standard band arrangements, those differ significantly from the jazz arrangements the Hellfighters’ Band would have used. Birkemeier began scrounging for the music where he could, poring through records in the Library of Congress. The treasure trove, however, was found in Chatfield, Minnesota of all places.

Tucked away in southern Minnesota, Chatfield nicknamed itself “BandTown, USA.” And tucked away in the town of 2,700, a short jog off Main St., south of the Dairy Queen and west of the Riley Funeral Home, is the Chatfield Music Lending Library. It just happens to be home to more than 30,000 cataloged and collected pieces of mostly band music, much of it obscure and out-of-print. It is the largest collection of its kind, anywhere.

Europe and the Hellfighters’ Band recorded 24 songs in early May and Birkemeier found 10 of them in Chatfield.

Naturally, there are limitations to what the Americus Brass Band can reproduce, though performances of such Europe classics as  “That Moaning Trombone” in the above clip are impressive. All the more impressive given that Europe’s notes are not available and band members can only guess at the improvisations, the trombone glissandos and trumpet tongue flutters the band members used.

Although space was made to allow for improvisations, it is impossible to know what Europe’s crew came up with.

“I do think there are spaces where we add flavor and ad libs,” Briggs said. “But we’re dealing with different sensibilities. I think there’s an awareness of that.”

And of course, part of the essential nature of jazz is that no two songs will ever be exactly alike.

But the Americus Brass Band’s effort is the best tribute available to one of the giants of jazz and American music all but lost in the fog of time.

The Americus Brass Band free concert takes place Sunday, June 30 at 3 p.m. at Daniel Recital Hall on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St. For more information, click here.

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