The Harlem Hellfighters – Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment

In advance of the first performance of Jason Moran’s commissioned project at the Barbican on October 30, here is an update on the day-long symposium that is taking place at the British Library on October 26.  It will provide fascinating background to the themes that Jason will bring into contemporary focus in his Barbican performance, and as a special invitation to visitors to this site, you can use the following discount code to book tickets – JASON2018 (30% off ticket price).

The day finishes at 7 pm as Jason reflects on the practice of writing and performing forgotten Black histories through jazz, in conversation with British saxophonist and broadcaster Soweto Kinch, whose forthcoming BBC 4 series, Jazzology With Soweto Kinch, will follow a personal journey into jazz and the roots behind a music that is political, spiritual and rooted in African American history.  Together, they discuss how the history of jazz informs their music, with particular reference to Moran’s latest project, inspired by the story of the World War One African American military band, the Harlem Hellfighters, and subtitled James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin – marking the importance of an artist whose untimely death in 1919 has obscured his seminal contribution to the evolution of jazz and black music history.

Moran’s body of work is a musical evocation of African American history and the historical legacy of jazz. He consistently returns to these themes across periods and forms, and through collaborative creative practice: with diverse outputs ranging from “Rain”, inspired by ring shouts from African American slaves; “In My Mind”, an exploration of Thelonious Monk’s large band concert at New York Town Hall in 1959; “The Death of Tom”, based on Thomas Edison’s silent film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the celebratory “Fats Waller Dance Party”; to the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement film, “Selma”.

James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin brings together these multiple interests. Through the figure of the iconic band leader of the 369th Infantry’s Harlem Hellfighters, Moran explores the lasting military and musical legacies of African Americans in wartime Europe and the potential of jazz as an activist force.

Preceding this, “Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment 1918-19” brings together academics, historians and writers to explore black intellectual thought, military presence and jazz cultures at the critical juncture of Paris in the immediate post-war period. Learn how pan-Africanism, Black nationalism, anti-colonialism and civil rights became embedded in post-war culture, and find out how jazz speaks to otherwise overlooked Black histories.

In 1919 the ‘first’ Pan-African Congress took place in Paris. The Congress took place in a Paris already awakening to Black cultures. Just a year previously, the military band of the African American 369th Infantry Regiment led by James Reese Europe, aka the Harlem Hellfighters, toured French music halls and fought alongside French and African troops. The 369th were welcomed back to the US with a parade from Fifth Avenue to Harlem watched by 250,000 people.

It was an instance of the renewed determination of African Americans in the fight for equality spurred by the war – as W E B  DuBois proclaimed in an editorial that ran in the May 1919 issue of Crisis: ‘We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy!’

This symposium, taking place between 10.30 am and 5.30pm, takes an interdisciplinary approach to reconsider the overlaps taking place in wartime Europe, through the crystalising lens of Paris in the immediate post-war period. It also asks what these histories have meant for future generations of black activists and cultural producers. The keynote speaker is Minkah Makalani (University of Texas at Austin), with contributions from Professor Catherine Tackley and writer Kevin LeGendre, amongst others.

You can find out more by visiting the following links.

The schedule for the day is currently as follows

Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment: transnational black military, musical and intellectual histories, 1918-19

Friday 26 October, 2018, 10.00 – 17.00, British Library Knowledge Centre

Registration and all breaks will be in the Dickens Room. Talks are in the Eliot Room.


10.00 – 10.30 Registration. Tea/Coffee.

10.30 – 10.40 Welcome: Phil Hatfield, Eccles Centre for American Studies

10.40 – 11.45 Keynote: “‘But We Go Off to the Kitchen’: Black Thought and Unimaginable Possibility in the Post-World War I World.” – Minkah Makalani (University of Texas, Austin)

11.50 – 13.10 Panel 1: Anti-colonial performance in print (Susan Allen, Carol Smith)

13.10 – 14.00 Lunch. A sandwich lunch will be provided.

14.00 – 15.20 Panel 3: In opposition/in dialogue: Francophone colonial and African-American thought and culture. (Merve Fejzula, Rachel Gillett, David Murphy)

15.20 – 15.45 Tea/Coffee Break.

15.45 – 17.00 Listening Panel: Musical traditions and transmission with Kevin Le Gendre, Soweto Kinch and other speakers TBC.

Evening Event

19.00 – 20.30 Join us in the Theatre for a conversation between Jason Moran and Soweto Kinch on composing and performing African American histories. The discussion will cover Jason’s work including his latest piece James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin on the Harlem Hellfighter’s leader, soldier, and community activist which will be performed at the Barbican on the 30th October.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close