James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin

Welcome to the website for the project that Jason Moran created in Autumn of 2018, that was jointly commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin, Serious and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, with support from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany.

On New Year’s Day 1918, James Reese Europe – an iconic figure in the evolution of African-American music – landed in Brest with the Harlem Hellfighters. As well as their achievements in combat, Europe’s crack military music ensemble popularised the new spirit of jazz to a war-torn French nation fascinated with black culture. And this is but the beginning of a story that continues to fascinate and intrigue.

A century later, composer, pianist and visual artist Jason Moran – himself a major and innovative force in today’s jazz – celebrates the legacy of a hero of black music, in a multi-dimensioned reflection on the impact of the African-American presence in Europe in the closing years of WW1, and its resonance both in Europe and in the USA, with contributions from John Akomfrah, and visual materials from acclaimed cinematographer Bradford Young, in a new project specially commissioned for the final year of 14-18 NOW. The Harlem Hellfighters story provides the genesis of the extraordinary impact of African-American music on Europe and the Americas, and a century of profound cultural and political change that is still evolving.

Performances took place in Europe and the United States in the autumn of 2018, at London’s Barbican, the Royal Welsh College in Cardiff, the Berlin Jazzfest, as well as Scotland at Paisley Town Hall, and the tour finale in Washington DC, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The performing ensemble included members of Moran’s long-established trio, the Bandwagon, and a group of brass and wind players drawn from today’s richly talented new generation of British musicians. Moran himself has created projects that have offered a profound insight into the creative world of key figures in jazz history, Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. His most recent UK performances included a two-night residency at Tate Modern with his long-term collaborator, performance artist Joan Jonas, and a duet with fellow pianist Robert Glasper at a sold-out Festival Hall.

This website draws together materials from researchers including Professor Catherine Tackley of Liverpool University, who curated the widely acclaimed recent exhibition ‘RHYTHM AND REACTION – the Age of Jazz in Britain’, exploring the effect that jazz had on British society in the aftermath of the First World War.

We also connected to a symposium at the British Library in London on October 26, 2018, that explored the connections between black intellectual thought, military presence, and jazz cultures at the critical juncture of Paris in the immediate post-war period. How pan-Africanism, black nationalism, anti-colonialism, and civil rights became embedded in post-war culture, and how jazz speaks to otherwise overlooked black histories


The 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment from New York became the most famous fighting unit of African-American troops. Nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” the regiment first garnered notoriety for its world-class band, led by the acclaimed James Reese Europe and made up of top musicians from the United States and Puerto Rico. Europe’s band, along with other black regimental ensembles, popularized jazz to a war-torn French nation fascinated with black culture. The 369th received equal acclaim for its combat performance. Two soldiers of the 369th, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first American soldiers to receive the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross). The regiment served for 191 days and ceded no ground to German forces. They were the first American regiment to reach the Rhine River in Germany following the armistice and returned to the United States national heroes.

On February 17, 1919, the 369th Infantry Regiment famously marched up Fifth Avenue and into Harlem before some 250,000 onlookers. A spirit of determination, inspired by the war, surged throughout black America. Du Bois voiced such sentiment in the May 1919 Crisis editorial “Returning Soldiers,” declaring, “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.”

From Jason Moran

That I would present a concert in response to Europe’s music. The piece would also investigate how this music is transferred historically from one artist to another.

I live in Harlem, where the Hellfighters emerged. The original Harlem Armory is still there.

We also respond to the idea of the “absence of ruin”, an idea presented by Orlando Patterson in relationship to how African-Americans have very few structures that tell us about where we have been. This is the same idea i am playing with in regard to old jazz clubs within my art practice. “Staged” looked at the Savoy Ballroom and 52nd St’s Three Deuces. I am now working on Slugs Saloon.
So, how do African-Americans deal with histories vanishing constantly, and how the music becomes the structure.


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