James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 22, 1881. James learned piano from his mother, and banjo and fiddle under his father’s encouragement.

After the death of his father, James moved to New York and, by the fall of 1904, he had sold five of his compositions to music publisher Sol Bloom, and began to perform at elite social events.

Red Wood Coast

Having established himself, Europe organized a new group for black musicians, The Clef Club. The club’s 125-member orchestra played extensively in New York, with several successful concerts at Carnegie Hall.

In 1913, James Reese Europe met Vernon and Irene Castle, a married theatrical couple who inspired the new fad of social dancing. Upon hearing one of Europe’s bands, the Castles hired him as their personal musical director. Europe’s Society Orchestra recorded an original piece, “Castle House Rag,” which helped popularize the foxtrot.

When war started in 1917, Europe and his musicians enlisted in the 15th New York Infantry Regiment. After a racially-fraught stint at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, Europe’s unit of musician-soldiers was sent to France to finish their training.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Europe’s unit, newly reconstituted as the 369th Regiment, joined the trenches after three weeks of training, and stayed for 191 consecutive days of combat. In August 1918, Europe and his band were pulled from the front, owing to their musical importance for troop morale.

James Reese Europe by Joe BusamThe band, which regularly played at army camps and French villages, had its biggest opportunity when it performed for 50,000 people with allied military bands of England, France, and Italy. His band’s syncopated rhythm, which he called its “racial musical characteristic,” continued to captivate audiences until the war’s end.

Lieutenant James Reese Europe came home a war hero in February 1919. Europe’s military band, which became known as the “Hellfighters,” successfully toured the country and recorded for Pathé. Europe’s fame seemed assured.

Three months after returning home from war, Europe and his men arrived in Boston to play a three-day engagement at Mechanics Hall. On May 9, 1919, at intermission, drummer Herbert Wright screamed at the bandleader and stabbed him in the neck with a knife. James Reese Europe was pronounced dead at 11:45 that evening.

Further Reading:

James Reese Europe: ‘The MLK of American Music’

James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Lt. James Reese Europe: Songs Brought Back from the Battlefield

Europe’s Society Orchestra


Jack Seufert lives in Parkton, MD.

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