James Reese Europe
and the Clef Club Orchestra
by Gregg Miner
February, 2013
Updated February, 2014

Image of the orchestra used by special permission of the Maryland Historical Society



James Reese Europe
(Early Life, New York, The Clef Club, The Society Orchestra,
With the Castles, War & the "Hell Fighters," Tragedy)

The Clef Club Orchestra

The Harp Guitars

Europe’s Legacy



Lieutenant James Europe in the first World War.

He was “the Martin Luther King of music” (Eubie Blake) and “a Moses of African-American music who single-handedly led black musicians and their music into the land of respect, professionalism and pride.” (Maurice Peress : Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots)

“The impact of James Reese Europe on American music cannot be overestimated.” (the Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress)

At the time of his death he was the best-known African American bandleader in the United States.

Why have so many great things been written about this man, and yet he has become such an obscure figure? 

It may be that, although he was a key proponent and figure in early American "Ragtime" music during its transition to Jazz, his recordings, repertoire and accomplishments were specific to that era, and have not stood the test of time - say, as the music of Scott Joplin.  Yet his list of accomplishments gives an idea of his importance to American music and especially to his race.  Among them:

  • He co-founded (and led) the Clef Club, which served as a union/hiring hall/booking agency for black musicians, the first such in New York.
  • Under his direction, the Clef Club Orchestra was the first African American orchestra to play Carnegie Hall.
  • His next group (the Society Orchestra) was the first black ensemble given a contract with a major record company (Victor).
  • He created music for Vernon & Irene Castle (the white husband and wife dance craze impresarios), and instigated their landmark Fox-trot.
  • He was the first black officer to lead troops into combat in World War One.
  • As leader of the 369th Infantry Band (the “Hell Fighters”), he was the first to introduce the sounds of American ragtime and the beginnings of jazz to Europeans.
  • He received the first ever public funeral for an African American in the city of New York.

Though this article appears on my harp guitar site - and so, obviously must involve them in some way (they'll make a later appearance) - I'm taking the opportunity to also tell a bit of the remarkable story of the man behind these events. Stumbling on the fascinating Clef Club photo was (for me) just the start of a discovery of an entire period in American music history that I had not been exposed to before.  I hope it makes an impact on you as it did me.

James Reese Europe
Early Life

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 coop).

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.

New York

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 Hogan's left.
Fletcher's biography (see Sources) refers to them as the Nashville Students.

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 the last.

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.

clef_club_march1_Yale.jpg (256118 bytes)

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 Manhattan.  

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 sub-chapter.  

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” designation.  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 Orchestra photo:

Image of 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-rethotjazz.com.jpg (111738 bytes)
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 long scales). 

europes_string_octett-nypl.jpg (145638 bytes)
Europe's String Octett in 1916

Anastasios Stathopoulo, New York, ca. 1910-1915

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 "Banjorine" (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" and "banjolines."

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 those days."

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 school.

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!

castles78.jpg (66700 bytes)

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.”

castlerag.jpg (54712 bytes) 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 from inaccurate):

"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 ventures.

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.”

europe.c1918-nypl.jpg (223857 bytes)
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 Pathé in 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 site.

europe-loc.jpg (241316 bytes)


Europe-wikipedia.jpg (235706 bytes)
Jim 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 Europe's last.

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.

The Clef Club Orchestra

It's hard to say which one of Europe's many achievements was the most significant, but certainly his 100+ member Clef Club Orchestra was among them.  The challenge – and what also made it so interesting – was that, while many members were professional musicians who read music, the majority of the club members played by ear, and only popular music.  In addition to which, all of them had odd day or night jobs that made it impossible to all rehearse together.  Yet somehow, Europe managed to whip them into shape in just five weeks for their first concert.  The instrumentation was certainly unique for an "orchestra."  Like his mentor, Ernest Hogan, Europe preferred plucked strings (banjos, mandolins, guitars – and harp guitars) for his syncopated “Negro music."  And, as it happened, the majority of the club members were those working in (or hoping to) hotels and nightclubs, who played banjo, mandolin and harp guitar.  Though he also had violins and celli, it would be another year before he added his first woodwinds (clarinet and flute) and another year before any brass made an appearance.  Perhaps most remarkable were the ten to fourteen back-to-back upright pianos he would employ.

Europe would later describe his orchestra:

"Our symphony orchestra never tries to play white folks' music. We should be foolish to attempt such a thing. We are no more fitted for that than a white orchestra is fitted to play our music."  Some of the peculiarities of the present orchestra, Europe admitted, were the result of practical necessity. 
Although he could call upon "between 150 and 187'' musicians, he was forced to make substitutions for the lack of good oboe or French horn players. Other modifications, however, had a strictly musical and racial validity: "For instance, although we have first violins, the place of the second violins with us is taken by mandolins and banjos. This gives that peculiar steady strumming accompaniment to our music which all people comment on, and which is something like that of the Russian Balalaika Orchestra, I believe. Then, for background, we employ ten pianos. That, in itself, is sufficient to amuse the average white musician who attends one of our concerts for the first time. The result, however, is a background of chords which are essentially typical of Negro harmony."  The point is, noted Europe, that "we have developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what else you may think, is different and distinctive, and that lends itself to the playing of the peculiar compositions of our race.”

What I also find fascinating – something that no previous writer seems to be aware of – is the superficial similarity of Europe's instrumentation to that of the hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of white mandolin and banjo orchestras that co-existed in America with the black groups.  The Caucasian-only BMG (Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar) community employed the same instruments, purchased from many of the same manufacturers, and created similar "balalaika orchestra"-type sounds.  Yet these two musical worlds – separated by racial segregation – appeared to be completely oblivious of the other (or perhaps just deliberately ignorant).  It is telling that Europe and his reviewers would occasionally mention the sound of the balalaika orchestra, but never the ubiquitous (white) mandolin orchestras (and of course, the Cadenza and Crescendo magazines would never mention African-American BMG efforts).

As stated above, the then-100-member orchestra made its debut on May 27th, 1910 at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem.  Though its exact instrumentation was not known, the personnel for the following concert on October, 20th, 1910 was recorded both in the souvenir program and duplicated in the October 27, 1910 issue of the black newspaper, the New York Age.  It was from the latter that Ed Berlin obtained the instrument count, relayed in his book King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era.  It was in this book (borrowed long ago from my friend, Frank) that I first read the impossible-to-believe roster that included "23 harp-guitarists"!  The book also stated "11 pianos," though in truth, 32 players were listed.  As the newspaper column (kindly submitted by Ed) reads "The...Orchestra is composed of...," I suspect that these were simply the 32 piano players for the evening's entertainment, and that just ten appeared at one time (confirmed elsewhere).  That still-staggering amount was achieved by placing ten upright saloon pianos back to back!  The rest of the listed instrumentation at this second Manhattan Casino concert included 27 first mandolins and "banjoris" (the 4-string melody banjos shown above), 10 second mandolins, 8 other banjos (presumably tenor, cello, plectrum or 5-string), 8 violins and 9 celli.

The third Manhattan Casino concert, in May, 1911, was captured in the remarkable famous photograph below.  I verified the date and photo match up by the inclusion of the Minstrel performers on the stage behind the orchestra, present only during this single concert (and confirmed in Tom Fletcher's book [see Sources]).

Though incomplete, I count a minimum of 7 mandolins (5 bowlbacks, 1 Gibson F-model and an Italian harp mandolin), 13 banjos (predominately the small tango/melody banjos, along with other longer-necked instruments), 6 guitars, 4 harp guitars, 2 violins, 7 celli, 3 double-bass, 2 percussionists, and strangely, no pianos (behind the performers or off to the side?).  Additionally, Reid Badger lists the addition of 2 clarinets (1 is visible), 2 flutes and an organ.  I don't know what the men are holding at the rear of the minstrel stage, as no brass were stated to be present (only the 4th concert on Nov 9, 1911, was recorded as finally augmented by a brass section).

James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra at the Manhattan Casino, May, 1911
special permission of the Maryland Historical Society

One of my favorite quotes about the Clef Club appeared to me first in Ken Burn's Jazz book.  This came from Badger's Europe biography, which includes a later quote by Eubie Blake: "The Europe gang were absolute reading sharks. They could read a moving snake and if a fly lit on that paper he got played."  Classic!  But this didn't jive with other things I read – some claiming that the Clef Club Orchestra members couldn't read, others that they only pretended that they couldn't read.  After reading all the material however, it appeared that all three of these realities were true.

First, there were definitely professionals and "amateurs" in the Clef Club Orchestra.  Some read, but a majority could not.  Yet, these different abilities did not appear to hinder Europe's plans – in fact, it undoubtedly contributed to his unique success.  An observer, Natalie Curtis, recorded the unique way Europe accomplished this:

"The musicians were arranged by the conductor in groups around the music, and in each group was placed one or two of those who could read – the rest simply caught by ear what their neighbors played and then joined in." The Clef Clubbers were all experienced musicians who, if they had not learned to read music, had apparently learned to read each other, for "once they had caught the main outline of the music, the whole band began to improvise." "I always put a man that can read notes in the middle where the others can pick him up," Europe told Curtis. They "can catch anything if they hear it once or twice, and if it’s too hard for 'em the way it's written, why they just make up something else that'll go with it."

Fascinating.  This then, is the group that would play Carnegie Hall!  Then there were the pro New Yorkers like Eubie Blake and the other "reading sharks."  Yet, whether in the Clef Club performances or Europe's top Society Orchestra bands hired for the best gigs, it seemed stereotypes must remain.  From Badger's book:  

...but they still found themselves having to make subtle compromises to their audience's preconceptions. One of these, particularly galling to Blake, who with difficulty had taught himself, was pretending not to be able to read music. "Now the white bands all had their music stands, see, but the people wanted to believe that Negroes couldn’t learn to read music but had a natural talent for it. So we never played with no music." "I'd get all the latest Broadway music from the publisher, and we’d learn the tunes and rehearse 'em until we had 'em all down pat. Never made no mistakes." "All the high-tone, big-time folks would say, 'Isn't it wonderful how these untrained, primitive musicians can pick up all the latest songs instantly without being able to read music?"

Interestingly, the fact that they were forced to leave their music at home – whether at the Manhattan Casino, Carnegie Hall, or the myriad high society parties – made it more likely for the musicians to improvise, thus furthering their "jazz" education and the music's place in history.

After their fourth successful Manhattan Casino concert, the Clef Club were able to arrange their unprecedented booking at Carnegie Hall, a benefit concert for Harlem's “Music School Settlement for Colored People.”  For this, they would eschew the Carnegie's grands and utilize either 10 (according to the program) or 14 pianos (again, back to back uprights, donated by the American Piano Co.), played by the best ragtime pianists in the city.  Other instrumentation included 60 mandolins (presumably, some of these "bandoris"), 15 guitars (harp guitars were not specifically mentioned this time, but undoubtedly appeared), 15 celli, 5 double-basses, and "some brass and woodwind."

As mentioned above, the event could not have been a bigger success.  They followed up with a 1913 Carnegie Hall concert and tour, with the 1914 Carnegie Hall appearance led by Europe under his new "National Negro Symphony Orchestra" banner, now with more strings, woodwinds and brass.

The Clef Club would continue under a few other directors, and prospered through the 1920’s up until the Great Depression.

In 1989, a unique "re-creation" of the Clef Club's famous 1912 appearance was put on at Carnegie Hall.  In his book, Badger describes how they duplicated the concert as accurately as they could, including scores of banjos, mandolins and the 10 upright pianos, but that "harp-guitar players proved difficult to find." 

But in fact, a harp guitarist was found, and appeared in the concert: Ragtime music historian and player Bob Ault, who has graced our Players page from the very beginning, and who sadly passed away in 2012.

Program for  the "Concert of Negro Music," presented by the Clef Club in May, 1912.

The late ragtime multi-instrumentalist Bob Ault

The Harp Guitars

So, exactly how many harp guitar players were there in the Clef Club Orchestra?  Surely not 23?

As no "guitars" were mentioned in the October, 1910 program, only 23 "harp-guitar" players, one might assume that some of the 23 players listed were just regular guitarists.  In fact, in the Carnegie Hall program, only "guitars" are mentioned.  The interesting thing is that all 23 men were listed under "Harp Guitar" – and would be again.

A souvenir program of the October, 1910 concert survives in the Schomberg Collection, NY Public Library, and the list (kindly shared by Professor Reid Badger) corresponds exactly with the list that was given in the newspaper the next week (so obviously copied from a provided program). The names (for posterity) are: Ferd Allen, F. S. Beaumont, Allen Ford, Thomas Harris, Fred Jackson, Percy Robinson, Andy Richardson, Edward J. Brown, Andrew A. Brown, Sidney Helms, Millard Jackson, Irving Johnson, James Rivers, Kelly Thompson, Frank S. Warren, Thomas Brandon, Jeff Demont, Arthur Desverney, George Henry, Van Johnson, Fred Miller, Jack Spriggs, and David Walker.

A second list appeared in the Washington Bee, October 25, 1913 (again, courtesy of Prof. Badger), for a November 7th, 1913 concert at the Howard Theater in Washington D.C.  Curiously, this again specifically lists "harp-guitarists," rather than any "standard" guitar players.  This list includes twenty-seven: 18 from the 1910 list along with new harp guitarists William Griffen, Alonzo Page, Theo Hope, Clarence Holden, William B. Howard,  Henry Sales, Walter McClennan, Herbert Washington, and J. Pete Zabriska.

Did all 23-27 of these gentlemen really play the harp guitar?  Or did multiple scribes lump normal guitars in with harp guitars for "novel effect" or some other purpose?  Perhaps the guitarists themselves each owned harp guitars and aspired to play them.  Given the statistics, it would seem curious that from one concert to the next (October, 1910 to May, 1911), the numbers would drop from 23 to just 4 – while several 6-string guitars now appeared.

And here are the four confirmed Clef Club Orchestra harp guitarists, photographed at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem on May 11th, 1911 (their names are not know, but are in all likelihood included in the above lists).

Clef Club harp guitars #1, 2, 3 & 4

It's interesting that the common Gibson harp guitar (or even a Dyer) is not represented.  Is it because they were more expensive, or that they were predominately marketed to the unilaterally white Cadenza & Crescendo BMG audience?

Instead, these instruments all have the typical vibe of New York, Italian-made instruments.  Trying to identify them has been a challenge!  Of the group at left, #4 is easy; this is almost certainly a harp guitar by Gaetano F. Puntolillo (sometimes labelled "Majestic") of New York City – showing up in 1911, rather than c.1920 as others have long estimated.  At right is the ex-Chinery specimen, which is almost a duplicate, excluding the inlays.

Puntolillo, c.1911

#3 above not only bears an unmistakable resemblance to the instrument at right from another historical image (without provenance, but coincidentally of another band of black musicians), but I have recently (late 2013) identified the maker.  He is one G. A. Carlson, of 741 W. Sixty-Third Street, Chicago, Illinois.

The other two are so far impossible to say.  Possible suspects?

#2 above is yet another tantalizing "one-off."  It resembles nothing in the Galleries except possible the similarly "one-off" instrument by Gerhard Almcrantz, also of Chicago.

Finally, harp guitar #1 does not seem to match anything I've yet seen.

Carlson (att.)

Carlson, c.1900

Almcrantz, c.1900

A final "harp"-instrument in the Orchestra photograph is the hollow-arm harp mandolin at left (again, Italian-looking).  Its unique appearance adheres pretty closely to a specimen of a Calace instrument in the Paris museum.

I now return to the tantalizing image of Ernest Hogan's 1905 group at the start of this article.  This appeared in Reid Badger's biography of Europe, and he kindly pointed me to its source - the 1954 autobiography of Tom Fletcher, a black entertainer who experienced firsthand the New York scene of Hogan and James Europe.  While locating the original is probably no longer possible, I was able to photograph the image from the book, show below.

Note the bowlback mandolins and the c.1900 5-string banjos – in 1905, the new tango/melody "bandoris" were not yet invented.  We can also see at least three harp guitars.  The names of the three harp guitarists are known to us from a 1905 newspaper column: two that would later appear in the Clef Club (F. Beaumont and Thomas Harris) and Walter Gray.


The Memphis Students, 1905. Hogan is doffing his hat, center, with Europe standing just below on Hogan's left. Fletcher's biography (see Sources) refers to this group as the Nashville Students.

Again, the harp guitars are impossible to identify – in fact, they are hard to see.  Hogan is holding up one that resembles the elaborate Italian-style instruments of the Clef Club above.  The other obvious harp guitar is lying on the ground – its extended bridge can be clearly seen.  The graininess of the photo makes any other harp guitar spotting all but impossible.  There appears to be a bank of sub-bass strings just to the left of the center harp guitar (this would make three), and another guitar (?) neck just to its right.

And so there you have it: an entire "alternate" world of extensive harp guitar use, located in New York (and likely anywhere these musicians found work), and put to work in the early Ragtime/Jazz music of black musicians like James Reese Europe.

hogan_hgs-fletcher.jpg (259867 bytes)
Close-up of the Hogan harp guitars

Europe’s Legacy

What I took away from my seven-year research into James Reese Europe was his remarkable all-inclusiveness.  Unlike his more famous predecessor Will Marion Cook, for example, Europe never apologized for writing or performing "popular" music. He even penned the occasional "coon" song, something few black musicians (including Scott Joplin) were able to avoid.  Yet he toiled constantly to create a sophisicated, world-renowned "National Negro Symphony Orchestra," something that he never fully realized.  He truly lived between two musical worlds; or more accurately, all worlds of the early black musical experience.

“Europe gathered all the colored professional instrumental musicians into a chartered organization and systematized the whole business of 'entertaining.'” (James Weldon Johnson: Black Manhattan) 

He “built an institution that undercut not only race prejudice but also the ideology that equated musical professionalism with the ability to read music.” (The New York Sun: Carnegie Hall review)

"James Reese Europe is one of the most remarkable men, not only of his race, but in the musical world of this country. A composer of some note –-some of his serious efforts were played the other night, and his dance music is known wherever the tango or Turkey Trot are danced – he is the head of an organization which practically controls the furnishing of music for the new dances, and at the same time, he is able to expend considerable energy upon the development of the Negro Symphony Orchestra. Unaided, he has been able to accomplish what white musicians said was impossible: the adaptation of Negro music and musicians to symphonic purposes." (New York Post review of the Negro Symphony Orchestra concert)

When John Phillip Sousa announced in 1909 that "ragtime was dead," James Reese Europe responded that what was passing was the use of the term, not the music:

"In my opinion there never was any such music as "ragtime." "Ragtime" is merely a nick-name, or rather a fun name given to Negro rhythm by our Caucasian brother musicians many years ago. The phrase "ragtime" is dying. Why? Because in these days of theme famine, so many eminent Anglo-musicians have become inoculated with that serum Negro rhythm ("ragtime"), and with their knowledge of musical theory embroider the plaintive ragtime theme with a wealth of contrapuntal ornamentation and a marvelous enrichment of tone coloring and complicated instrumentation, that the primal Negro rhythmical element – "ragtime" – is so disguised that a mere hint of a "motif" of the "ragtime" rhythm is lost to the popular ear. No! "Ragtime" is neither dead nor dying, but is undergoing a vast development, and is more popular now than ten years ago."


Thanks and Sources

Thanks to: Darrell Urbien (for first alerting me to the Clef Club photo in the Burns Jazz book), the Maryland Historical Society (for supplying me with the photograph and permitting its use), and especially Joplin biographer Edward Berlin and Europe biographer Reid Badger for taking such an interest in (and helping with) this study.

Sources include a myriad of great-to-poor Internet sources, and more importantly: 
A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger (1995)
Jazz: A History of America's Music by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (2000)
King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin (1996)
100 Years of the Negro in show business;: The Tom Fletcher Story by Tom Fletcher (1954)

The Red Hot Jazz Archive

Featured Player of the Month INDEX

If you enjoyed this article, or found it useful for research, please consider making a donation to The Harp Guitar Foundation
which supports Harpguitars.net, so that this information will be available for others like you and to future generations. 
Thank you for your support!

Harpguitars.net Home

The Harp Guitar Foundation

History          Players         Music         Luthiers         Iconography         Articles 

 Forum                 About                Links                Site Map                Search               Contact

All Site Contents Copyright © Gregg Miner,2004-2020. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright and Fair Use of material and use of images: See Copyright and Fair Use policy.