Monday, May 28, 2007

Remembering James Reese Europe on Memorial Day

James Reese Europe was one of jazz’s early forefathers and also one of New York’s greatest WWI figures. Google may not mark Memorial Day, but let’s take a minute to remember a military and musical hero.

Born to a freed slave who became a Republican appointee in the postmaster-general’s office, James Reese Europe would quickly rise to the pinnacle of the New York dance band world. Nearly all the top dance bands operated under the auspices of his benevolent club, most directly under his own name. More than any other band leader, he ushered American music through its early changes from Ragtime to a more syncopated style that would eventually become Jazz. As musical director for Vernon and Irene Castle, he broke the color-line providing music for white America’s dancing sensations.
Europe led many orchestras, but it was as the leader of the Army 15th’s marching band for which he is most celebrated. It was the band itself that enticed many of the 15th’s volunteers into service. While attached to the U.S. Army, Europe’s band thrilled U.S. servicemen and French civilians in performance. Due to Army reluctance to pursue battlefield integration, the 15th was re-christened the 369th Infantry Regiment, and attached to the French Army at the front.

Soon dubbed the “Hell Fighters” for their warfighting tenacity, Europe’s men endured trench warfare and distinguished themselves under artillery fire and chemical attack, culminating in an unprecedented 171 citations for individual heroism, and a forty percent fatality rate for the original 2,000 volunteers.

Europe survived the Great War, only to be killed by a mentally disturbed band member. Remembered fondly by colleagues like Eubie Blake, he was a great American, who ought to be better known. Here is as life that would make a great movie, but perhaps the combination of heroism and jazz would not be considered commercial, which would be a sad commentary indeed.