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Lt. James Reese Europe: The World Catches Jazz Fever, Compliments of the U.S. Army

For decades afterwards, people who were there would remember it as one of the most glorious moments in New York history, when everything seemed to be changing before their eyes. On that day, Feb. 17, 1919, the soldiers of the all-black 369th National Guard Regiment, just back from frontline combat in France, found nearly a million New Yorkers of all colors crowded along Fifth Ave., cheering them as they marched home to Harlem. When they’d gone off to war, not fifteen months earlier, they were looked down on as a rag-tag outfit that no white unit would have anything to do with. They had not even been allowed to march alongside the celebrated, multiethnic “Rainbow” Division, since, as they were pointedly told, black was not one of its colors.

What particularly stuck in everybody’s minds about their march home was the music the 369th’s  band played. They were considered the best military band in the Army, if not the world. They played a new kind of music, syncopated, but not ragtime. The band’s leader, Lt. James Reese Europe, had coined a name for it: Jazz.

But in France, to everybody’s surprise, they quickly distinguished themselves as tough, hard-fighting combat soldiers who suffered many casualties, but never gave up an inch of ground or had any of their ranks taken prisoner. Fighting as part of the French army, they also gained a memorable nickname: the Harlem Hellfighters. Now they’d come home as heroes.

369th National Guard Regiment

Soldiers from the 369th National Guard Regiment parade down Fifth Ave. during their triumphant return from World War I, Feb. 17, 1919. National Archives photo

What particularly stuck in everybody’s minds about their march home was the music the 369th’s  band played. They were considered the best military band in the Army, if not the world. They played a new kind of music, syncopated, but not ragtime. The band’s leader, Lt. James Reese Europe, had coined a name for it: Jazz.

Jim Europe grew up in Washington, D.C. in the last years of the 19th century, at a time when segregation had not yet become fully institutionalized. His family was of a black social class of strivers, not quite middle class, but working in that direction. He attended racially-mixed schools and studied violin, winning several city-wide competitions. But rather than attend university, he moved to New York to become a classical music composer.

But even so, despite high society’s growing acceptance of black music, black musicians were still treated like servants, poorly paid and usually finding themselves required to also serve food, clear dishes and clean up afterwards.

Once there, Europe quickly realized the market for black, classical violinists and composers was nearly nonexistent. On the other hand, the market for black musicians playing black music was red hot. Ragtime was the rage, so were black musicals and “coon” songs. Europe was soon collaborating in a number of musical productions, but also fielded an all-black string quartet that quickly found itself in demand, playing parties for America’s wealthiest families.  Soon he expanded it to a full orchestra. At first, they played classical, but quickly began working in black compositions. The response was positive. People at the top were willing to take black music and black composers seriously. In 1912, Europe and some others organized a landmark concert of African-American music at Carnegie Hall.

But even so, despite high society’s growing acceptance of black music, black musicians were still treated like servants, poorly paid and usually finding themselves required to also serve food, clear dishes and clean up afterwards. To change this, Europe and some others founded a proto-labor union called the “Clef Club,” which stipulated better wages and kept them from doubling as servants. Rather than lose the music they liked, the customers went along with their demands. By now, Europe was someone who mingled freely within high society. He had friends, he had influence, and he knew how to use it.

James Reese Europe

Lt. James Reese Europe (far left) with the band of the 369th National Guard Regiment that he trained and led, Feb. 12, 1919. Europe was told to make the band the best in the U.S. Army. National Archives photo

But then something wholly unexpected happened: war. Almost overnight, the continent of Europe went from being a dazzling, stylish place, to a bloody battleground where an entire generation was being senselessly annihilated. For three years, America managed to stay out of it, but eventually war fever reached the shores of the United States as well. In 1916, as America began gearing up to go to war, the governor of New York decided to let a black National Guard unit be founded in Harlem. Command of the 15th  New York Army National Guard Regiment (Colored), as it was then called, was given to Col. William Hayward, a white political figure who was already well known in Harlem. As a onetime colonel in the Nebraska National Guard, he was a firm believer in its positive role in building civic pride, especially in communities like Harlem, where most men were newcomers and finding their place in society. Jim Europe was a personal friend, and Hayward convinced him to set an example by enlisting. Europe was not initially an easy sell, since the time he would spend in uniform was time not spent earning what was then a good living. But he believed that serving in the Guard was an important way for African American men to demonstrate their patriotism. He enlisted as a private in a machine gun company. Other Harlem men soon followed suit.

The weeks passed, but instead of a major offensive, there were continual artillery barrages followed by probing attacks by German raiding parties on isolated American outposts. But each time the Germans attacked, they were savagely driven back, sometimes by only one or two Americans. On one famous occasion, two black soldiers, Pvts. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, fought off twenty-four Germans using only rifle butts and a bolo knife. For this, both were awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Hayward had an idea for building up the 15th’s visibility and esprit de corps. He wanted Europe to lead its band and make it the best in the Army. Europe, now a lieutenant, and the regiment’s only black officer, pointed out that a regulation Army band was only for twenty-four musicians, far too small for the kind of music they played. Besides, the army still hadn’t supplied them with any band instruments in the first place. Hayward sent Europe to Puerto Rico to recruit some reed players while he hit up their rich friends for money for instruments. In their endeavors, both were quite successful. Soon afterwards, the 15th was sent off, first for basic training in upstate New York, then for combat training in Spartanburg, S.C.

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Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...