Randy Weston African Rhythms Octet
2014 at Skirball, NYC, USA
2012 at Tribeca PAC,
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
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
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.
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
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.