Man, talk about making it under the wire!  I had to get this blog up today (the last day of February) without fail.

The second part of February’s special Players feature in honor of Black History Month originally started out as an investigation into the curious appearance of multiple harp guitars in this amazing photo of the Clef Club Orchestra in 1911.

(by special permission of the Maryland Historical Society)

But, to be honest, the harp guitars (which are quite interesting, by the way!) turned out to really just be an excuse to research the life and times of the group’s founder and director, James Reese Europe.  If any black musician warrants celebrating during this month (and always), certainly Europe should top the list.

Just some of his claims to fame:

  • 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.

And who knows how many other milestones he would have achieved had he not been tragically killed (by his own disgruntled drummer in a freak “murder”) at the age of 39?

So how many readers had previously heard of Europe?  How many Ragtime fans?  How about jazz experts?  I’ll admit that I had never come across the name before June, 2005.   That was when fellow harp guitar nut Darrell Urbien stumbled upon Ken Burns’ Jazz book in the remaindered book aisle, urging me to pick up a copy.  The prize was the photo above, followed by several pages about the man behind it.  By that August, I had tracked down the source photo and negotiated for a scan and the web use rights.  Upon delivery, I was like a kid in a candy store, and it then took me some time to sleuth out the instruments as best I could.  Planning to add this to the Members Section (where the article will reside), I got distracted year after year by the urge to learn more about Europe, whose story appeared in snippets and short bios throughout the web and other sources.  Ultimately, after obtaining his essential biography A Life in Ragtime (where, believe it or not, I was rewarded with a second surprise image containing mysterious harp guitars!), I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity.

And so at long last, after over seven years, all this to boil it back down to snippets for the short-attention-span harp guitar crowd.  I’m teasing – some of you will likely relish this story as I did, and there should be more than enough in the full article (7500+ words) for the general reader.

And if that doesn’t inspire you to want to gain access to our private area, then I trust the amazing harp guitars would!

Feel free to request the Member password, as this will be a special private presentation (active members are listed here, inactive here).

It closes the “Black Harp Guitar Players” article, on the newly added link: James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra