Saturday, February 03, 2024

The Harlem Hellfighters, on History Channel

James Reese Europe should be a household name for both his music and his military service. Before he shipped off to France with New York’s 15th National Guard, he was one of the most famous bandleaders in America, both for fronting his own ensemble and backing Vernon and Irene Castle. Europe and his comrades in the 15th fought like heck for America, even though the armed services were racially segregated during WWI. The 15th gets the credit they were so often denied in the one-hour documentary special The Harlem Hellfighters (directed by Mandla Dube), which premieres tomorrow night on History Channel.

Europe is either one of the earliest jazz musicians or the last of ragtime. Regardless, he could have been as big as Basie or Goodman had he lived to see the era of big band jazz. At the height of his fame, Europe volunteered for the 15
th (which became the 369th Infantry Regiment when they shipped out overseas), inspiring a wave of enlistments from within his band and throughout New York City. They were under-funded and under-trained, because the top military brass had no confidence in them. Yet, they quickly gained a reputation for battlefield tenacity (and their ferocious nickname) when they were finally deployed in combat roles.

Fittingly, Dube and most of the on-screen commentators focus on Europe and his fellow musicians, most notably including his songwriting partner, Noble Sissle, making the History doc of particular interest to jazz fans. Of course, appropriate time is also devoted to Henry Johnson, who became a media sensation for accounts of his heroism and eventually became a posthumous Medal of Honor recipient, eightysome years after his death.

As you would expect, the Hellfighters often endured disgraceful racism from their fellow American soldiers (and those who didn’t even have the decency to serve). However, it is “nice” to hear some of the white Northern soldiers nearly stormed the hotel where Sissle was attacked during their training in the segregated south. Early on, Woodrow Wilson faces some deserved criticism for his racism, but he probably gets off easy considering nobody was more responsible segregation as it was practiced in the early and mid-20
th Century.

Dube assembles a fantastic line-up of talking heads, including James Reese Europe III, Noble Sissle Jr., and jazz musician Jason Moran (who has performed programs of Europe’s music at the Kennedy Center).

Europe was an American hero, who should be memorialized on stamps, currency, and public statues. Dube and company do a nice job telling history and that of the other men in the 15
th/369th, but there is definitely room for more. There should be James Reese Europe dramatic films and feature-length documentaries, but at least this one gives viewers the facts with brisk economy. Highly recommended for its subject and interviewees, The Harlem Hellfighters airs Sunday night (2/4) on History Channel.