There is great beauty in the life of Lieutenant James Reese Europe. Within the scholarship of who he was and what his music is, it becomes clear that the history surrounding him is a complex and tightly woven knot. Each strand of the cord holds a uniquely American history, a history that also births another complex knot, JAZZ.
Europe becomes a freedom fighter. He learns aspects of this at an early age as his violin teacher is the son of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. An early lesson he understands is that sound and freedom aid one another. With his violin he arrives New York on a mission. Much of this mission revolves around music, but his greater mission will be that of demanding equality of African-American performers, PEOPLE. He finds fame by producing music for many societies: dances, parties, ceremonies, concerts. In 1910 he formed the groundbreaking Clef Club, a union for African-American musicians. His 1911 standing room only Carnegie Hall premiere of the Clef Club Orchestra was a sensation. His work developing dance music with the famous dancing duo, Vernon and Irene Castle, innovated the fox trot tempos and other dance steps. With each of these developments Europe always found a larger stage. The “stage” will always be a portal, a place to test what is real and surreal.
In WW1 he found his largest and most dangerous stage. When he joined the New York’s 15th Regiment, later becoming the 369th Infrantry Harlem Hellfighters, he knew African-American soldiers could not fight alongside white soldiers. His writing partner Noble Sissle was shocked Europe signed up. Sissle asked Europe if he could get out of the war, would he? Europe replied “ If I could, I would not. My country called me and I must answer. And if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.”
He indeed startled the world. 100 years later we celebrate a brave individual among a company of soldiers, The Harlem Hellfighters, who predict a thought Martin Luther King Jr. would write some 47 years later in his letter from a Birmingham jail “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Hear We Are.