James Reese Europe: The WWI “Martin Luther King of music”

Published: 9 February 2024

By Andrew Dorn
via the NewsNation website


Lt. James Reese Europe (pictured left) leading the 369th Infantry Regiment band in the courtyard of a Paris hospital in 1918. (Library of Congress)

  • He helped popularize African American music among Black, white audiences

  • Fought in World War I and led the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ regimental band

  • Introduced jazz to continental Europe, boosting wartime morale

As part of Black History Month, NewsNation is celebrating artful and creative pioneers within the Black community who have left an indelible mark on the arts and shattered barriers for other minority artists in the U.S. and in the world. Read about more impactful artists here.  

(NewsNation) — Dubbed “the Martin Luther King of music” by Eubie Blake, James Reese Europe was an early 20th-century composer, musician and bandleader who helped pave the way for Black Americans in the music industry before his life was cut tragically short.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1881, Europe was the fourth of five children. As a teenager, he studied piano, violin, and composition and moved to New York City in 1904.

Once there, Europe formed the Clef Club, a union and contracting agency for New York’s Black musicians — one of the first of its kind.

In 1912, the 125-man Clef Club Symphony Orchestra made history by becoming the first proto-jazz ensemble to perform at Carnegie Hall, exclusively featuring music by Black performers. The concert was a tremendous success, with The Sun newspaper reporting that the integrated audience “was large and thoroughly well mixed, but united in its applause.”

Europe’s unique compositions stemmed from his belief that Black musicians should embrace their own distinct style.

“We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s the product of our souls; it’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race,” he said.

When the United States entered World War I, Europe was commissioned a lieutenant. Along with fighting, he was tasked with putting together a band and became the leader of the 369th Infantry Regiment’s “Harlem Hellfighters” band, which introduced continental Europe to an until-then unknown music called jazz.

The band took France by storm, amazing crowds with its unique syncopated style and helping boost allied morale. It became so popular that soldiers in the trenches petitioned U.S. Army General John Pershing to keep the group stationed nearby.

“That’s the chief trouble [Europe’s] band has always had,” wrote a Philadelphia newspaper. “When anybody hears it they want it to stick around for the rest of their lives.”

When Europe returned to the United States in 1919, he and the Harlem Hellfigters received a hero’s welcome with a parade up New York’s 5th Avenue. Hailed as the “Jazz King,” Lieutenant Europe quickly embarked on a tour with his band, but it would end abruptly.

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