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A Tribute to James Reese Europe

Randy Weston African Rhythms Octet
 

2014 at Skirball, NYC, USA
2012 at Tribeca PAC, NYC, USA
2011 at Middelheim Jazz, Belgium
2010 at Marciac Jazz, France  
2007 start of the "Harlem-stride" series at the Harlem Stage

 

This concert is the debut of new and old compositions in tribute to James Reese Europe and the 369th Harlem Hell Fighters, the Clef Club and his work in the early part of the 20'" Century.

In the 1940's, I had the honor and privilege to meet and listen to the words of the great African American pianist Lucky Roberts.
I was a young 17 year old musician seeking information about the history of African American music.

Lucky Roberts said to me, "we older musicians left you young musicians very little because when James Reese Europe died we died. I started reading various articles about this giant of African American music and was' amazed at the greatness of this man and his accomplishments.

While living and traveling in France, I visited the cities where the 369th Regiment Band performed, bringing African American music to the people of France for the first time and lifting the spirits of the people. During the first World War, Aix Les Bains, Chambery and Paris were some of the cities they visited.
James Reese Europe was a true master and spiritual leader - a visionary. We need to establish a James Reese Europe Day to celebrate this great leader every year.

Randy Weston
 


James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe was a definitive renaissance man. He was musician, composer, bandleader, one of the earliest black recording artists, a prolific performer for theater and dance, and was a pioneering military man. Though it may be somewhat arguable to peg him as one of the more forgotten forerunners in American music, the fact that he is often overlooked is without question.

A list of James Reese Europe's most essential accomplishments is prodigious: He was by turns perhaps the most essential African American musician of the 20th century's first decade: Europe was the first African American to record for a major recording company (the Victor label); he founded the Clef Club in 1910 to address issues and needs particular to African American musicians; his musical accompaniment gave rise to the development of popular dance forms such as the foxtrot during the years he worked with the hoofers Vernon and Irene Castle; and Europe was the most noted member of the famed 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, during World War 1. It was in the latter capacity that he may have been the first musician to introduce European audiences to elements of what became jazz music, within the context of his crack military band during the "Great War."

Born February 22, 1881 in Mobile, Alabama, Europe grew up largely on the streets of Washington, DC where his family moved in 1891, ironically eight years before the birth of DC's most famed musical son Duke Ellington, for whom Europe likely served as an influence and musical predecessor - Ellington being the keen observer that he was. As a child Europe's musical training commenced at home, on the piano and violin. Curiously, considering his later incarnation as a stellar military man, Europe studied composition in DC with Enrico Hurlei of the Marine Corps Band.

Following the death of his father in 1903, Europe migrated to New York City, his eyes squarely on the prize of writing and music-directing black Broadway productions. He broke onto the scene as a cabaret pianist before being spotted by noted Broadway producer Ernest Hogan, who recruited him to write and direct the music for one of Hogan's variety shows.

From there it was on to significant work as a music director and composer for a raft of musicals, including the Bert Williams' show Mr. Lode of Koal. Europe became one of the most sought after musicians in the theater craft. On April 11, 1910, recognizing the need for an organized effort that might improve the lot of black performers, Europe spearheaded a group that formed the Clef Club. Based on the noble premise of being both union/clearinghouse and booking agency for black artists in New York, the Clef Club also formed an orchestra engaging the collective talents of its considerable membership. The Clef Club stands as a forerunner to musicians' collectives that started with the segregation era black musicians' unions that sprang up across the country, on up to the now-40+ year old Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) that started in Chicago and later spread its tentacles internationally. The Clef Club Orchestra's debut performance was May 27, 1910 at Harlem's Manhattan Casino.

The proto-jazz Clef Club Orchestra preceded the more noted Paul Whiteman/Gershwin concert at the Aeolian Hall and Benny Goodman's "Spirituals to Swing" Carnegie Hall concert with its May 2, 1912 concert; the first of its kind to bring "Negro music" to such a hallowed venue of American culture. That evening's program ranged from marching band music to pop songs, traditional spirituals, some light classics, and ragtime tunes, an unprecedented display of the songwriting and compositional skills of black composers. The foxtrot was born to the music of the Clef Club, a conception of Europe and Vernon Castle with an assist from W.C. Handy, The Castles and the Clef Club cast such a spell over North American dancers that extensive tours of the U.S. and Canada resulted, The rise of Europe's visibility and fame prompted the Victor Company to sign him to a recording contract, the first such deal ever signed by a black orchestra. He made his first Victor recording on December 29, 1913, quickly following that up with a second session in February, 1914.

World War 1 brought the Europe/Castle team to an abrupt halt. In December 1915 Vemon Castle enlisted in his native Britain's Royal Air Force in their effort at stemming the tide of The Great War with Germany. Nine months later Europe Joined the ranks of the Fifteenth Infantry of the National Guard, also known as New York's Negro regiment, originally assigned to a machine-gun company. Colonel William Hayward recognized the allure of Europe's primary skills and encouraged him to put together a regimental brass band. Europe then went about the business of recruiting the best musicians for his ensemble, and incredibly succeeded in getting them to drop their responsibilities and sign up for military stints. In the spring of 1916 the Europe's orchestra was joined by two quite significant figures who became a powerful songwriting team unto themselves, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle.

On January 1, 1918 the band disembarked at Brest, France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. Rather than pin the fighting ranks Europe's band was sent all over the countryside to entertain both troops and French civilians, who were getting their first taste of this musical forerunner of jazz - and loving it! On February 17, 1919 the band Joined a grand and victorious march up Fifth Avenue to the adoration of thousands of joyous New Yorkers. Weeks later the band began an international tour with two concerts in New York. That tour would unfortunately be Europe's last hurrah as it was cut tragically short when on May 9, 1919 Europe was fatally stabbed by a deranged band member and died within hours. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, thus "coming home" to Washington.

By Willard Jenkins
 

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