James "Jim" Reese Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama on
February 22, 1880 (per Badger, 1995 [see Sources];
web sources give 1881),
fifteen years after the end of the Civil War. It's hard to
believe that his father had been born into slavery (in Mobile,
AL in 1847), and yet transpired to raise a family that would
include three professional musicians, one who would become
almost a legend in his own lifetime.
James' father Henry held several jobs, including employment
with the IRS and Baptist minister (rising high in the church’s leadership).
Henry ultimately took a job with the Postal Service, moving the family to Washington, D.C in 1889.
Prior to being able to enroll the three youngest children (of
five) in church-run private schools, his wife Lorraine home-schooled
them (brother John was 5 years older than James, sister Mary was
5 years younger. Older sisters Minnie and Ida had flown the
The children enjoyed a relaxed but ideal musical upbringing,
as both parents were musical. Lorraine played piano and
read music, teaching these skills to all three children.
Henry, meanwhile, played the popular instruments (banjo, mandolin, etc)
entirely by ear. This would prove to be a perfect combination for
James' future musical path – he learned piano, reading and
discipline from his mother and improvising on fiddle and banjo from
his dad. One wonders if he could have achieved his later
successes without this background in musical extremes. All
the children must have taken their training seriously, as John and Mary
would both became professional pianists.
In 1889, the Europe family now in Washington, D.C., James
next studied his first love, the violin, under the well-known
violinist Frederick Douglass. (Another great opportunity for the
9/10-year-old). Two years later, none other than the king
of marching band music, John Philip Sousa, moved into the home a few doors down from
the Europes. Neighbors for the next three years, there seems to
be no way that James could not have helped but be exposed to Sousa and the whole brass military band movement at its peak
A few years later in high school, military drill was very popular
and the imposing Jim Europe (he would reach 6 feet tall and over
200 pounds) was quickly recruited. He excelled at it and,
again, this would prove important to his future career.
After their father passed away suddenly in 1899, oldest son
John soon went to New York, which offered the best opportunities for
his pianist career (it had become known as the "Mecca for
colored performers"). By early 1903, his younger
brother had joined him, unsuccessfully
auditioning in various saloons with his violin. He soon
learned that it was unfortunately not a popular instrument –
especially his “concert style” – so he switched to mandolin, eventually
landing some gigs with that along with his own piano-playing (he
was considered a “good” player).
In only his second year, he got his first theater gig, a
surprise request to conduct the orchestra and chorus of the black musical
A Trip to Africa. Additionally, by fall of 1904, he had
already sold five of his own compositions of popular music (to Sol Bloom Publishing).
These would be the first of almost 90 original songs or
instrumentals he would write (or co-write) in his short career.
|With his foot in the door of New York black musical
theater/comedy, in early 1905 he joined another group that would
have a direct impact on his future "sound": "The
Memphis Students," led by Ernest Hogan, at the time one of the biggest names in black musical
theater (more on Hogan will appear in the Harp Guitar chapter).
Hogan had successfully rode the transition from 19th century minstrelsy to vaudeville and 20th century musical
comedy (his most infamous claim to fame was composing the 1895 hit “All Coons Look Alike to Me,”
rather ironically spawning two decades of “coon music.”).
The Memphis Students garnered special attention by being
"triple threat" singers, dancers and instrumentalists,
and also by their unique (and very specific line-up) of mandolins (11) and banjos (2), supported by harp guitars (3) and cello (3).
Placing ads for musicians with these specific skills,
Hogan appears to have deliberately created and/or adhered to this lineup.
Oscar Hammerstein was so enamored of the group that he booked them for
two seasons in his Roof Garden (Europe would play the first).
The Memphis Students, 1905. Hogan
is doffing his hat, center, with Europe standing just below on
Fletcher's biography (see Sources) refers to them as the
The Hogan instrumentation seems to have been
chosen for its unique “strummed, plucked” rhythmic sound,
which best suited music such as that by the renowned
African-American violinist/composer Will Marion Cook (Europe's
important predecessor), which combined "Negro folk,
spirituals and minstrelsy." This instrumentation certainly had an effect on Europe who
would stick with it for his own orchestras throughout the next decade.
In late 1905, it was back to musical theater, with his next big
break as orchestra/chorus conductor for The Shoo-Fly Regiment by Bob Cole & the Johnson Brothers (James Weldon & J. Rosamond), ex-international vaudeville
stars who were then the hottest team of black musical creators in
New York. Continuing in this vein, in 1907 he was asked to write additional music
for The Black Politician (a musical comedy by Dudley &
Cassin) and signed on as music director. In 1908, it was
back with Cole & Johnson for the ambitious The Red Moon.
In the summer of 1908, after a benefit for Ernest Hogan, who
had become ill, a group of ten top theatrical professionals
decided to form a support group for the black theatrical profession, called “The
Frogs.” Firmly established as a leading figure in black musical
comedy, Europe was invited to join the group.
The Clef Club
Various members of The Frogs, including Europe, had been
increasingly supplying casual entertainment to wealthy New
Yorkers for some time, especially with the increasing popularity
of the "scandalous" new practice of public dancing and
the demand for "ragtime" music at these lavish parties.
As there were no blacks allowed in the Local 310 musician's
union, in April, 1910, a few of the Frogs, including Europe (who
would be elected president), made the ground-breaking decision
to create the Clef Club, an association "that functioned as a sort of union/hiring hall/booking agency."
Even more ground-breaking was Europe’s grand plan: a “symphony-sized concert orchestra composed
entirely of black musicians." The musical aspects and
instrumentation of the group will be discussed in further detail
below, but suffice it to say that the
practicalities of creating such a group was a nearly impossible
task. Yet just ten days after the formation of the
Clef Club, the first concert of The Clef Club Orchestra was
announced – with only five weeks to organize the musicians and rehearse!
The 100-member orchestra, led by James Reese Europe, made its
debut on May 27, 1910 at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem.
Part of a larger concert, Europe and the orchestra had prepared
thirty minutes of music, complete with ten pianos “on stage”!
The event was a spectacular hit, and continued with biannual
concerts for the next two years, each one more successful than
On May 2, 1912, the Clef Club Orchestra next made history when it played
Carnegie Hall. This was a quickly booked concert to benefit
the new “Music Settlement School” in Harlem. This
would prove to be Europe's “greatest opportunity” and “most difficult challenge” in his young 10-year
career, as he was well aware that the reputation of his race was
at stake if the event did poorly. In fact, the day before
the concert, only a third of the 3000 seats had been sold.
But then fate seems to have intervened when someone wrote a stirring editorial in the
New York “Evening Journal.” By the next night's
opening, the concert was sold out.
The response could not have been more enthusiastic; the
concert was a tremendous hit – for both black and white audiences, who, for
this rare and significant moment, were seated side by side with
no segregation or signs racial prejudice.
According to James Weldon
Johnson, "New York had not yet become accustomed to jazz;
so when the Clef Club opened its concert with a syncopated march
(Europe's Clef Club Grand March), playing it with a biting attack and an infectious rhythm,
and on the finale bursting into singing, the effect can be
imagined. The applause became a tumult."
Much has been written – by much better musicologists than I
– about Europe's role in the development of American jazz
music, which may be hard for some of us to discern today.
An excellent recreation of the Clef Club March, along with other
Europe compositions and those by his contemporaries can be heard
on the CD Black
As one Wikipedia writer points out: "Neither the Clef Club Orchestra nor
the Society Orchestra (next sub-chapter) were small 'Dixeland' style bands. They were large symphonic bands to satisfy the tastes of a public that was used to performances by the likes of the John Phillip Sousa band and similar organizations very popular at the time."
True enough, when one listens to the "Clef Club March"
and similar tunes, but Europe's "proto-jazz" music
will get decidedly more wild in the next
Such was the Carnegie Hall success
that after the 1912 concert, Clef Club members were engaged for all
of the best New York functions and booked in London, Paris and private yachts that cruised the world.
The Clef Club Orchestra would hold repeat Carnegie Hall concerts in 1913
and 1914 which were equally successful, if no longer as groundbreaking.
During this period (after the Orchestra's 1913 tour), jealousies
among various members arose regarding Europe being singled out
for the group's success (naturally) and he was so stung by the
complaints that he simply quit. He immediately created the similar Tempo Club (though,
ever the gentleman, he would bear no hard feelings).
The Society Orchestra
|Even before leaving the Clef Club, James Reese
Europe had begun taking out small “pick-up” bands under his “Society Orchestra”
It is believed that he used up to 100 different Clef Club musicians for its various versions.
A typical roster from mid-1913 lists 2 violins, 2 "banjolines,"
cello, bass violin, piano, cornet, trombone, baritone, clarinet
and drums/traps. This list may be representative or abnormal, as
Europe was known to be (then) adverse to brass, and the surviving photos clearly show
all the plucked and bowed strings, but no brass or woodwinds.
I'd like to take a quick look at the banjos, as they
represent an important part of our American musical and
manufacturer history. Especially interesting is the "banjoline,"
which is undoubtedly the same instrument as the "bandori"
mentioned in the earlier Clef Club Orchestra press
material. The many previous Europe biographers –
not being musicians – have been long mystified by this,
as was I. The mystery was solved by a member of the Yahoo
BlackBanjo group on this
post. While I had already deduced that the instruments
were rare, early "tango banjos," he astutely theorized
that they were further modified into "bandoris" by
being tuned, not to tenor banjo pitch (CGDA), but to mandolin
pitch (GDAE). Whether intended for that purpose by the
manufacturers, Europe and his black musicians chose to utilize
them as "banjo" alternatives to the common mandolin,
the group's nominal lead instrument.
First, note the many small banjos in the 1911 Clef Club
the orchestra used
by special permission of the Maryland Historical Society
Europe and his Society Orchestra c.1914-1916
(original photo incorrectly inscribed "Clef Club")
Europe's Society Orchestra,
c.1916/1917. Europe is seated at the piano;
Noble Sissle is third from left in the back row.
|Note that none of them are 8-string
(double-strung) mandolin-banjos, even though they had been
available for some time (though uncommon).
Instead, they are all 4-string banjos, of assorted scale
lengths. As many of these Clef Club players later went on
to play with the Society Orchestra(s), it's not surprising to
see the same instruments in these three later group
images. In fact, some of them appear in multiple photos:
the large, 4-string cello banjo and short- and normal-scale
4-string banjos. These latter, I believe, represent what
today are known as "tango" or "melody"
banjos (short scale) and "tenor" banjos (of medium and
Europe's String Octett in 1916
Anastasios Stathopoulo, New York, ca.
|While some sources seem to imply that the tango/melody banjo
was the precursor to the tenor, and was tuned the same, it seems
clear that they were, in fact, created to provide a mandolin
player with the same tuning (and music) that he was used to, but
with a true banjo sound, i.e.: four strings, of either
gut or steel. What's missing are enough catalogs and other
sources providing the various marketing names, popular names and
intended tunings of the time. Note that that most of them
in the orchestra photos seem to be the violin tuners-and-scroll
headstock form, like the Stathopoulo at left.
Interestingly, there was another 4-string instrument called a
(as opposed to the earlier 5-string banjeaurine) by J. B. Schall.
This was yet another 4-string, mandolin-tuned banjo, with either
an abnormally long scale or a greatly reduced head.
Whatever the "inventors" and manufacturers called
them, black musicians appear to have called them "banjoris"
The longer-necked instruments ini the photos would presumably
be early tenor banjos, though there may be other forms as well
(such as earlier 5-string banjos). What's interesting is
that Europe and his musicians (and/or their reviewers) seem to
have considered the two instrument groups fully distinct; they
never lumped the small mandolin-equivalent instruments in with
the other banjos, while all the other non-lead versions
were called simply "banjos."
With the Castles
Vernon and Irene Castle were at their peak in the
mid-'teens. Though the Castles were not the first, they came to symbolize the burgeoning
and "decadent" dance craze. They career first took off in Paris, then Germany,
until the couple found themselves then back in their native New
York in May, 1912. The attractive, slim and entirely wholesome couple
helped made such social dancing increasingly respectable.
Not surprisingly, in the fall of 1913 they found themselves performing at one of the endless private parties, backed by
Europe and his Society Orchestra. They hired them on the spot, citing both their incomparable rhythmic syncopation and their
ideal (banjo-dominant) instrumentation. His was "the most
famous of the colored bands,” Irene Castle later wrote, and Europe
was a dignified and "skilled musician and one of the
first to take jazz out of the saloons and make it respectable.
All the men in his orchestra could read music, a rarity in
Shortly after their historic meeting, the Castles opened their own permanent high class nightclub “Sans Souci”
( at $100 per ticket !). Europe's Society Orchestra would
back them for 6 months until the Fire Marshall shut them down.
Later they would open "Castle House," their dance
|Due to the Castle gig (incidentally, according to Eubie Blake,
James Europe coined the word “gig”!), the Society Orchestra received the first contract
awarded to a black group by a major record label (Victor).
In two sessions (12-29-1913 and 2-10-1914) they would record a total of
8 sides, including three new instrumentals specifically written
by Europe for particular Castle steps.
The Red Hot Jazz Archives list the artists as: Leader: James Reese
Europe; Violins: Tracy Cooper, Walker Scott & George Smith;
Clarinet: Edgar Campbell; Cornet: Cricket Smith; Piano: Ford
Dabney and/or Leonard Smith; Drums: Buddy Gilmore; and 5
"unknown" Banjo players. It is key to the
history of American jazz to note that the Society Orchestra manages the
occasional improvisation and definitely cuts loose on some of these
performance. You'll also hear what was then something
unique: the first traps drummer with all the bells and whistles,
played by a single musician (in this case, the originator, Buddy
Gilmore). I highly recommend visiting the wonderful Red
Hot Jazz site to sample some of these energetic recordings!
|This was not the end of the Castle's
influence extending to Europe and his musicians. When the
Castles were booked into the Palace and Hammerstein’s Victoria theaters in Times Square (for $2000 a week), they insisted
Europe and his group accompany them. As they were not
allowed by the segregated union to play in the pit, the Castles
won with a compromise – the band accompanied them from the stage.
It was Europe who suggested that the Castles try to create a dance to
“Memphis Blues” by
W. C. Handy, one of the group's favorite pieces, and half of the
Castles' usual tempo. They did, and the new "Fox
Trot" became their biggest hit yet. The Castles not only acknowledged and credited
Europe for the Fox Trot’s development, but they pointed out
that it was fundamentally black music, “something their race had been ‘dancing’ for 15 years.”
||This last statement leads to one of Europe's own
explanations of his music in 1915. If one (of any race) were to
say this today, I'm sure it would be considered a crude
stereotype at best and a racial insult at worst (though it's
more insulting to my own!). Yet Europe was fully serious
(and, at least at that point in our musical development, far
"1. He [the Negro musician] is a natural musician, and throws himself into the spirit of his work with spontaneous enthusiasm; so that the music rendered by a Negro orchestra rarely has the mechanical quality which is fatal to dancing.
2. He has a superior sense of rhythm, peculiarly adapting him for dance music.
3. The art of playing the modem syncopated music is to him a natural gift.
4. He excels in the use of the guitar, banjo, and mandolin, instruments which are now being generally adopted by orchestras playing dance music to obtain the "thrum-thrum" effect, and the eccentric, accentuated beat, so desirable in dance music; and he was the first to discover the availability of these instruments for such purposes.
5. In addition to his natural talent...the modem Negro musician is well trained in his art. He reads readily, memorizes marvelously well, interprets naturally, and not only understands the principles of technique in the use of his instruments, but is remarkably skillful in execution-as is to be expected when one considers that the Negro possesses a rare facility for arts requiring physical skill."
|I found numerous quotes from the
Castles and other commentators of the era, both black and white,
that came to the same conclusion. It really puts the
entire white Cadenza/Crescendo BMG (Banjo, Mandolin &
Guitar) community of 1895-1920s in perspective!
Europe and his18-member band would continue their association
with the Castles throughout 1914, with an aborted national tour
and additional work in the Castles various New York club
During this year, Europe was also asked to put on a new 1914 Carnegie Hall
concert. As he was no longer officially affiliated with
the Clef Club, he named this new aggregation – now with more strings, woodwinds and
brass – the “National Negro Symphony Orchestra.”
This would eventually become his next dream, until he was interrupted by
more important matters.
War & the "Hell Fighters"
Europe and his various small orchestras continued to work
nonstop throughout 1915 and and 1916. During this period,
he relied more and more on a partnership with the up &
coming songwriting duo of singer Noble Sissle and
pianist/composer Eubie Blake. Blake, one of his many piano
soloists, would become an assistant conductor, and help run
things back in New York while his boss and partner were
away. Yes, they were going to war.
Ever mindful of the struggle of his race, when war was
declared, Europe realized that a Harlem national guard unit would further benefit his community.
As always, he would lead by example, and so on Sept, 1916, James
Europe was one of the first to enlist in the New York "15th
Colored Infantry." Immediately, his Colonel (Hayward) tasked him to put together
"the best band in the U.S. Army" to help inspire enlistments.
Europe balked, as he was not then a big fan of brass and military music (this despite his early years in military drill and exposure to Sousa).
He finally capitulated, but insisted on a budget so that he
could hire the world's best musicians (the Colonel found their benefactor
in the [white] director of U.S. Steel Corporation). Europe
was not kidding about making this the best military band he
possibly could; he even went to Puerto Rico to recruit his woodwind
players (in early spring, 1917), as he had heard (and then verified) that they were the best reed players in the world!
Once overseas, the 15th Regiment was given the choice to be transferred directly into the French army for
their training, as they weren’t allowed to join their own white “comrades.”
For their part, having no concept of racial bigotry, the French were
grateful for the additional troops and treated the 15th as their true
comrades (despite the problematic language barriers). In
no time at all, the band members found themselves on the
frontlines and James Reese Europe (now Lieutenant) became the first black officer
to lead his troops into combat in the Great War. Now part
of the 369th Regiment, the "bloodthirsty black men"
(according to the Germans) were nicknamed the “Hellfighters.”
James Reese Europe and the
369th Infantry Regiment Band playing outside an American Red
Cross Hospital, Paris. (ca. 1918)
Soon Europe and his men were given the chance to return to
their original duty, labelled "Lieutenant James Reese
Europe and his famous 369th U.S. Infantry 'Hell Fighters'
Band." In February and March 1918, the Hell Fighters traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians.
Even some of the French admitted that Europe's group was the best military band in the world.
Europe wrote: " Everywhere we gave a concert it was a riot...”
Playing a multi-band concert in Paris with the greatest military bands in all of Europe, “...the crowd deserted them for us. We played to 50,000…”
One main difference of course that set them apart from the
European military bands was the "jazz" effects they
employed - then a novelty to white audiences. In fact,
Europe gladly shared a score with one of the French bands who
was nevertheless unable to re-create it, as the “jazz” effects were a complete
(non-notate-able) mystery to them. At this point in
musical history (c.1918), “jazz” (originally “jass”) had entered the vernacular (introduced by the Original Dixieland Jazz
Band in 1916), and was now spread throughout Europe by James
Europe and the Hell Fighters. But what exactly was this
early "jazz" music?
According to Europe (who was one of its key creators), jazz
was not apparently the music, per se, but something done to
music in performance. "It is accomplished in
several ways," he said:
"With the brass instruments we put in mutes and make a
whirling motion with the tongue, at the same time blowing full
pressure. With wind instruments we pinch the mouthpiece
and blow hard. This produces the peculiar sound which
you all know. To us it is not discordant, as we play the
music as it is written, only that we accent strongly in this
manner the notes which originally would be without accent
[i.e., syncopation]. It is natural for us to do this; it
is, indeed, a racial musical characteristic. I have to
call a daily rehearsal of my band to prevent the musicians
from adding to their music more than I wish them to.
Whenever possible they all embroider their parts in order to
produce new, peculiar sounds. Some of these effects are
excellent and some are not, and I have to be continually on
the lookout to cut out the results of musicians' originality."
|On Nov 17, 1918, six days after the war’s end, the 369th
Regiment was given the honor of being the first to enter Germany.
Back home, they were included in the most rousing Victory
Parade the city of New York had ever seen. It was
another rare and wonderful occasion when racial prejudice
would temporarily disappear. One of the three important
figures in the parade was James Reese Europe, leading his
now-legendary Hell Fighters band.
While the war had hurt New York's black music scene, the
tremendous overseas success of Europe's military band brought new opportunity.
In four sessions in March and May, they would record 30 sides for
Brooklyn. These recordings
consisted of two different singing groups, others featuring vocalists Sissle
or C. Thompson, and plenty of instrumentals that showcased the new “jazz interpretations” of
James Reese Europe. Again, Red Hot Jazz has made most of
these groundbreaking recordings available on their web
Europe's 369th Infantry "Hellfighters" Band - 1919
|James Reese Europe was on top of the world.
Now halfway through a ten-week tour of the East and Midwest with
his Hell Fighters band, he was already preparing plans for their worldwide tour, along with the buildup of the
National Negro Symphony Orchestra, and even – with partners
Sissle and Blake – a new black musical for Broadway.
Sadly, the band's May 9th, 1919 show in Boston would be
In an unimaginably random, unnecessary and tragic accident,
Europe was fatally stabbed with a small pocket knife by Herbert
Wright, one of his two drummers, who had sprung at him without
warning during a seemingly harmless argument.
The entire country would carry the news the next day, while
the city of New York would hold a parade and public funeral, the
first ever given an African-American. The "King of
Jazz" was dead.