Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Ragtime Patriot: James Reese Europe

“My country calls me and I must answer, and if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music”—James Reese Europe, quoted in Reid Badger’s A Life in Ragtime.

So Lt. Europe spoke before reporting to Fort Dix, after enduring two invasive surgeries, which most likely could have excused him from duty. As Europe’s 15th New York National Guard Infantry Division began the process of mustering into the U.S. Army, one of WWI’s more remarkable stories was set in motion, culminating in an unprecedented 171 citations for individual heroism, and a forty percent fatality rate for the original 2,000 volunteers.

Born today on February 22, 1880 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 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.

As a result of their heroic service, the 369th band led a historic victory parade on their return to New York. Although most of Europe’s music was unrecorded, some sessions survive, including the song “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” which he wrote in a field hospital while recuperating from a gas attack. Sadly, Europe was killed by a mentally disturbed band member shortly after his return. His premature death prevented him from fully attaining his musical ambitions, but his brief life demonstrated unusual leadership both on the bandstand and the battlefield.