James Reese Europe



Of his contemporaries, James Reese Europe's story is the saddest. He achieved much in his short life, but his greatest achievements were surely to come, and it is fair to say that the whole history of jazz would have been different had Europe not met an untimely death at the end of World War I.


James Reese Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 22, 1881. Both of his parents were musicians, and when Europe was about ten, his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he studied violin with Enrico Hurlei, the assistant director of the Marine Corps Band. Europe entered a music-writing contest at the age of 14 and was awarded second place, bested only by his sister Mary.


At 22, Europe moved to New York and began playing piano in a cabaret. He also continued his musical studies, and in 1905, he joined Joe Jordan to write for The Memphis Students. That was the year he unknowingly influenced a future songwriting great: George Gershwin remembered sitting on the curb outside Baron Wilkin's nightclub in Harlem for hours when he was seven years old, listening to Europe play.


In 1907, Europe was the musical director of Cole and Johnson's Shoo-Fly Regiment. Two years later he performed the same duties for Bert Williams' Mr. Lode Of Coal. In 1910, he founded one of the most unusual African-American organizations of the time.


The Clef Club was unique in that it was part fraternal organization and part union. The building it purchased on West 53rd Street served both as a club and as an office for bookings. Its board included William Tyers, previously an arranger for Stern Music Publishing Company, as its treasurer and assistant symphony orchestra conductor, and Henry Creamer, who would later pair with Turner Layton to write many popular songs, as its press representative and general manager. Europe was the Clef Club's first elected president as well as the conductor of its symphony orchestra.


The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912. They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914. One American writer said that popular music first invaded the concert auditorium when Europe played Carnegie Hall.


One Clef Club Orchestra performance boasted 150 musicians, although it has been said that not everyone who was on stage in some shows could actually play an instrument. Some were taught just enough chords to get them through the performance, and others were simply holding instruments with rubber strings.


Nevertheless, the Carnegie Hall concerts gave the Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society, and as a result, they were engaged to play at many of the most elite functions both both in New York and in London, Paris, and on yachts traveling worldwide. The club functioned as a clearing house not only for musicians but also for all types of entertainers, and under Europe's leadership, it was actively involved in improving the entertainers' working conditions. Prior to this era, some establishments hired musicians primarily as waiters and bartenders who also happened to be expected to entertain the guests. When an act was booked through the Clef Club, however, the musicians were hired solely as entertainers and received a salary, plus transportation expenses, room, and board. The club proved exceptionally successful, generating over $100,000 a year in bookings at its height of popularity.


At the time dancing was all the rage in New York, and the most famous dancers were Vernon and Irene Castle. When the Castles met Europe at a private society party where the Clef Club Orchestra was playing, they decided to make him their band leader. They also hired fellow black composer Ford Dabney as their musical arranger.



Europe was instrumental in the premier and success of the Castle's most famous dance creation, the fox trot, which was reputedly adapted from W. C. Handy's Memphis Blues. While with the Castles, he also added a saxophone to his band, giving what had previously been used mainly as a novelty in musical acts the status of a respectable jazz instrument for the first time. Europe and Dabney wrote most of the music for the Castles' dances.



In 1914, after disputes arose between Clef Club members, Europe resigned as its leader and formed the Tempo Club which, when he played for the Castles, was also called Europe's Society Orchestra. When Europe left the Castles in 1915, Ford Dabney took over his spot as band leader.


At the start of World War I, Europe enlisted as a private in the army. After passing the officer's exam, he was asked by his commander, Colonel William Hayward, to form a military band as part of the combat unit. Europe felt that it would be hard to convince New York City musicians to leave their highly paid jobs to go to war, but Colonel Hayward instructed Europe to get the musicians wherever he could. He did just that, even traveling all the way to Puerto Rico to recruit his reed players.


When the unit arrived in France on New Year's Day 1918, it was the first African-American combat unit to set foot on French soil. Europe's band entertained troops and citizens in every city they visited and was received with great enthusiasm. Noble Sissle said at the time that the "Jazz germ" hit France, and it spread everywhere they went.


Throughout the war, Europe continued to write songs, composing the words to On Patrol in No Man's Land while hospitalized after surviving a gas attack at the front. On August 18, he was sent from the front to lead his band at an Allied conference in Paris. They were only to play one concert, but the crowd reaction was such that both American and French officials asked them to stay in the City of Light for eight weeks.


During this time, Europe's group performed in a series of concerts with some of the greatest marching bands of France, Britain, and Italy. After one performance, the French band leader asked for one of Europe's arrangements so that his band could play some of this American jazz. The next day the leader questioned Europe because his bands' version did not sound like the original. After listening to them play, Europe agreed and tried to explain how the jazz effect was accomplished. The puzzled Frenchman later inspected Europe's instruments; his band felt that the only explanation for the sounds they created could be that the instruments were doctored.


Europe and his band returned triumphantly to New York on February 12, 1919, and soon began a tour of American cities. The final concert on the tour was at Mechanic's Hall in Boston on May 9, 1919. That evening, when one of the "Percussion Twins," Herbert Wright, became angered by Europe's strict direction, he attacked the band leader with a knife during intermission. Noble Sissle recalled: Jim wrestled Herbert to the ground, I shook Herbert and he seemed like a crazed child, trembling with excitement. Although Jim's wound seemed superficial, they couldn't stop the bleeding, and as he was being rushed to the hospital he said to me: "Sissle, don't forget to have the band down at the State House at nine in the morning. I am going to the hospital and I will have my wound dressed....I leave everything for you to carry on." Europe's jugular vein had been severed. The next day the papers carried the headlines: "The Jazz King Is Dead."



Sissle's partner Eubie Blake later said of Europe, "He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of music." Sissle remarked: There was only one Jim Europe, and he had not just been "made" with that band of his. There was years of experience behind that sweep of his arms, and anyone who tried to follow him would just be out of his mind....I was sure that conducting was not the field in which I was to carry on his life's dreams. In my mind his band should remain in the memory of those who heard it led by Lieutenant James Reese Europe, and that's how it ended. Europe was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Despite his many accomplishments, he never fulfilled his greatest ambition: to restore the Negro to the Broadway stage. It would remain for his students, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, to realize his dream.


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