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James Reese Europe

From Wind Repertory Project
James Reese Europe

Biography

James Reese Europe (22 February 1880, Mobile, Ala. – 9 May 1919, Boston, Mass.), sometimes known as Jim Europe, was an American ragtime and early jazz bandleader, arranger, and composer.

Europe's family, which included his older sisters Minnie and Ida, and older brother John, moved to Washington, D.C. in 1890, when he was 10 years old. He moved to New York in 1904.

In 1910 Europe organized the Clef Club, a society for African Americans in the music industry. In 1912 the club made history when it played a concert at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of the Colored Music Settlement School. The Clef Club Orchestra, while not a jazz band, was the first band to play proto-jazz at Carnegie Hall. It is difficult to overstate the importance of that event in the history of jazz in the United States — it was 12 years before the Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin concert at Aeolian Hall, and 26 years before Benny Goodman's famed concert at Carnegie Hall. The Clef Club's performances played music written solely by black composers, including Harry T. Burleigh and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. In the words of Gunther Schuller, Europe "... had stormed the bastion of the white establishment and made many members of New York's cultural elite aware of Negro music for the first time".

Europe was known for his outspoken personality and unwillingness to bend to musical conventions, particularly in his insistence on playing his own style of music. He responded to criticism by saying, "We have developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what else you think, is different and distinctive, and that lends itself to the playing of the peculiar compositions of our race ... My success had come ... from a realization of the advantages of sticking to the music of my own people." And later, "We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It's the product of our souls; it's been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race."

His "Society Orchestra" became nationally famous in 1912, accompanying theater headliner dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. The Castles introduced and popularized the foxtrot—"America learned to dance from the waist down." In 1913 and 1914 he made a series of phonograph records for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Neither the Clef Club Orchestra nor the Society Orchestra were small "Dixieland" style bands. They were large symphonic bands to satisfy the tastes of a public that was used to performances by the likes of the John Philip Sousa band and similar organizations very popular at the time. The Clef Orchestra had 125 members and played on various occasions between 1912 and 1915 in Carnegie Hall.

During World War I, Europe obtained a commission in the New York Army National Guard, where he fought as a lieutenant with the 369th Infantry Regiment (the "Harlem Hellfighters") when it was assigned to the French Army. He went on to direct the regimental band to great acclaim. In February and March 1918, James Reese Europe and his military band travelled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians.

After his return home in February 1919 he stated, "I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negros should write Negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies ... We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines." In 1919 Europe made more recordings for Pathé Records. Differing in style from Europe's recordings of a few years earlier, they incorporate blues, blue notes, and early jazz influences.

Europe died as the result of a stab wound inflicted by one of his own band members whom Europe had criticized. At the time of his death, he was the best-known African-American bandleader in the United States. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


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