James Reese Europe
“The Jazz Lieutenant”


In our video lecture on the African Influence on American Music (Feb.. 2012), we mentioned that during the first decade after it was introduced, Ragtime was not a popular genre.  There were a number of reasons for this.  It was simply too hard for most people to play and it had no words.  The family couldn't’t gather around the parlor piano and sing along as they could with the popular songs of the day.

Most importantly, Ragtime was viewed in many negative ways.  Doctors said that syncopation would harm one’s brain.  It was also seen as a corrupting influence, particularly on young people.  But, the greatest negative stemmed from the racial views of that period.  An editorial in the New York Herald in 1913 stated:

“Can it be said that America is falling prey to the collective soul of the Negro, through the influence of what is popularly known as Ragtime music?  If there is any tendency to such a national disaster, it should be definitely pointed out and extreme measures taken to inhibit the influence and avert the increasing danger .Ragtime music is symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the Negro type.”

This was the view held by a large portion of the middle class.  But, it was not just stuffed-shirt Victorian whites who objected to Ragtime.  The black middle class was also alarmed.  They did not want to be seen in the way just described.C:\Users\Rich\Documents\ParlorSongs Academy Website\Website Contents\James Reese Europe\AdamClaytonPowellSr.jpgAs the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, said at the time:

“The Negro race is dancing itself to death.  Our people are too frivolous because they feed on too much trash.  You can see the effects of the Tango, the Chicago, the Turkey Trot, the Texas Tommy, and Ragtime music, not only in their conversations, but in the movement of their bodies about the home.”

By the end of World War I, the attitude toward syncopated music had completely changed.  It was now the “rage”.

The man who, almost single-handedly,was responsible for that change was James Reese Europe.

Early Career
Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 22, 1880 or 81 (there are conflicting dates in numerous sources). Both of his parents were musicians, as were his brother and sister.  In 1891, his father accepted a position with the Federal government and the family moved to Washington, D.C.  There, young Jim lived in relatively comfortable surroundings, attending public school and beginning to play both piano and violin.  He studied both instruments with Enrico Hurlei. *(See Note) At Washington’s M Street high school, Europe joined the school drill company and served as the color sergeant.  After school, he helped organize church concerts and presented violin recitals with his sister, Mary.
Note:  Numerous sources state that Enrico Hurlei was assistant director of the Marine Band at that time.  However, there is no record of any such person having any connection with The President’s Own.

The sudden death of Europe’s father in 1899 ended the family’s domestic ease.  The now 19-year old James took work of any kind to help out with the family finances.  Finally, in 1902 he left home to join his brother, John, a successful cabaret pianist in New York. At first Europe auditioned at clubs on violin, but found that there was little interest in a classical-violin playing black man.  So, he took up the mandolin and, falling back on his solid piano skills, made a living playing in saloons and cafes in Manhattan’s “Tenderloin” district.  In later years, George Gershwin would recall sitting on the curb as a 7-year old child, outside Baron Wilken’s night club in Harlem, listening for hours as Europe played the piano.

Like numerous aspiring black musicians, composers, and entertainers, he became a fixture at Jimmy Marshall's Hotel on 53rd Street.  In an era when black musicians were barred from white unions, Marshall's served as an important meeting place where musicians found work and discussed music.  Although mainly self-taught as a conductor, and having little theatrical experience, in 1904 Europe was hired as music director for “Jolly John” Larkin’s production of A Trip to Africa. The show received bad reviews and 1905 found Europe back in the ranks as a member of a singing-dancing vaudeville orchestra called the “Memphis Students”, who found great success at Hammerstein's Victoria Roof Garden at Broadway and 42nd Street.

Though Europe continued to perform with the Memphis Students, he became active in a number of other black musical productions. Between 1906 and 1907, he served as music director of Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson's three-act comedy The Shoo-Fly Regiment, and in 1907 and 1908, he provided this service for S. H. Dudley and Steven B. Cassin's production The Black Politician. In 1908 Europe was invited to become a charter member of the "Frogs," an 11-member club dedicated to promoting the Negro theatrical profession and its image as a serious art form.

By 1910, Jim Europe’s experience as a club musician and theater musical director gave him reason to create a black performer’s professional organization, The Clef Club.Before the Clef Club’s existence, it was the common practice of hotels, restaurants, and private-party hosts to hire talented persons of color to do menial work – waiting tables, washing dishes – while also expecting them to entertain the guests by performing for no additional pay.  There was little redress for such treatment.  The “mission” of the Clef Club was to highlight the value, dignity, and professionalism of black performers and it was instrumental in beginning to change racial attitudes, at least in the upper levels of white society.

The Clef Club was officially incorporated on June 21, 1910, and quickly became a “Who’s Who” of early twentieth-century black music and show business.  During its heyday, it boasted a membership of more than 200 men (women were not allowed to join or even enter the clubhouse).  The Club devised a basic salary “scale” for various types of engagements and its clubhouse at 136 W. 53rd Street (directly across from the Marshall Hotel) functioned as a booking agency. 
The Clef Club boasted that it could furnish a dance orchestra of from three to thirty men upon request at any time, day or night.  Unlike other elite black musical associations, the club accepted both reading musicians--mostly trained on violin, cello, viola, and double bass--and non-reading instrumentalists who played banjos, mandolins, and harp guitars.  As orchestra member Noble Sissle described the member’s reading skills, “If a fly landed on the paper, it got played”.
As its reputation grew, the Clef Club gained the favor of the loftiest of New York’s white society and it became the very height of fashion to announce that one had secured a genuine Clef Club orchestra for a social event.  Perhaps the Club’s most celebrated performances were its series of annual Carnegie Hall concerts, commencing in 1912 and continuing through the 1914 season.  Europe’s stirring and prideful “The Clef Club March” (1910) was the group’s official anthem.  Here is a clip of that march, played by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, from their “Black Manhattan” CD;

In the summer of 1913, Europe met the celebrated exhibition dancers Irene and Vernon Castle while they were working at a society party.  Restricted by the non-ragtime rhythms of white ballroom orchestras, which failed to offer the syncopation required for their modern dance numbers, the Castles, on hearing Europe's ensemble, were immediately drawn to the proficiency and unique sound of the group's instrumentation. They immediately engaged Europe as their personal music director, and insisted on having his musicians in all of the many types of venues in which they appeared, including those not hospitable to persons of color.As Thomas J. Hennessey noted in From Jazz to Swing, "While black musicians had played for white dancers before this, the enormous visibility of the Castles and Europe had a profound impact on the opportunities for black musicians.”Europe’s association with the Castle’s began to break down the barriers and prejudices against “black music” mentioned earlier.

When the Castles and their wealthy benefactors opened a dance school, the Castle House, Europe's Society Orchestra became the in-house accompaniment.


By most accounts, it was Jim Europe’s arrangement of W. C. Handy’s Memphis Blues that the Castles used to invent the Fox Trot.  Here is the Europe orchestra’s rendition:

This association with the Castles also fostered another historic first.  When Europe and his men stepped into the Victor Talking Machine Company’s studio on December 29, 1913, they became the first black orchestra to make a recording.

Unfortunately, all this focus on Jim Europe caused friction within the Clef Club.  Some members accused Europe of using his position with the Castles to unfairly advance his own career.  This led him to resign the presidency of the club in 1914, although he retained his membership.  He then organized a similar but new black musicians’ union uptown in Harlem – The Tempo Club.  Many leading Clef Club members followed him.

Then came World War I.  In 1915 and ’16, Europe stayed busy touring with the Castles and keeping up with his orchestra’s other engagements.  In 1916, Vernon Castle went home to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps.  Flying over the Western Front, he shot down two aircraft and was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1917.  He was posted to Canada to train new pilots, and then promoted to Captain and posted to the U.S. to train American pilots.  On 15 February 1918, at Benbrook Field near Fort Worth, TX, Vernon took emergency action shortly after takeoff to avoid a collision with another aircraft. His plane stalled, and he was unable to recover control in time before the plane hit the ground. Vernon was the only casualty. He died soon after the crash at age 30.

It was also during this period, in September 1916, that Europe joined the newly formed 15th Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard. Assigned as a private to a machine gun company, Europe did not join the army with the intention of becoming a military musician; rather, he believed that the establishment of a black military unit in Harlem would inspire greater civic pride among blacks. Commissioned a machine gun regiment lieutenant, he was asked, in the spring of 1916, to join the regimental band. He initially declined, explaining that his duties at the Tempo Club afforded him little time for such a venture. But a few months later, realizing the positive image that could be promoted by such a unit, he joined the band as a sergeant. Over the next months, Europe joined the regiment's musicians, such as former musical associate Noble Sissle, in recruiting band members. Europe was ultimately awarded a commission.

The band became the 369th New York Regimental Band, known as the “Hellfighters”.On New Year's Day 1918, Europe stepped off a troop ship onto French soil at the port city of Brest, where, in the midst of cheering crowds, he led the band in the playing of the French national anthem, “The Marseilles”, although at first those gathered on the dock did not recognize the tune due to Europe’s unique arrangement.

The band was received so enthusiastically that officials sent it on a tour of France, entertaining troops and citizens. 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”.

But, Europe was not content to simply be a band leader.  After all, he had joined the Army to fight.  However, due to the American military's racial policies prohibiting the mixing of black and white troops, the 15th New York became incorporated into the U.S. Army 369th Infantry and was subsequently assigned to the French Army's 16th Division. To take charge of his machine gun company, Europe left the regimental band under the leadership of bandmaster Eugene Francis Mikell. On the front lines in the Argonne Forest, Lieutenant Europe became the first black officer to lead black troops into combat. On one occasion, armed with a pistol, he went on a night patrol in no-man's land where he was injured in a German poison gas attack.
He was sent to Paris for recuperation and, while in the hospital, he wrote On Patrol In No Man’s Land

On February 17, 1919, the highly decorated 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard was welcomed home by thousands who turned out to watch it march up Fifth Avenue. Marching in the closed-shoulder-ranks style of the French Army, the unit proceeded west on 110th Street, and then turned north to Harlem. A member of the 369th, Captain Arthur Little recalled the parade, "I marched at the head of the 1st Battalion--about 60 paces from Jim Europe's band of 60 pieces of brass and reed, and a field section of 30 trumpets and drums. During the entire progress of the seven-mile march, I scarcely heard ten consecutive bars of music. So great were the roars of cheers, the applause, and the shouts of personal greetings."
Back in New York, Europe toured with his military band and made plans to create a Negro symphony orchestra. He stated, as quoted in The Music of Black Americans, "I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that negroes 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 Pathe Records. These included a recording done in March 1919, “All of No Man’s Land Is Ours” with vocal by Noble Sissle.




Sissle would later team with Eubie Blake.They would go on to have a career in vaudeville and had great success with their 1921 production of Shuffle Along, which gave us the classic song "I'm Just Wild About Harry".

Europe’s band also began a tour at this time and it was during this tour that he met his untimely death.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 New York Times carried this story. The murder was front page news in Chicago

Led by James Reese Europe, black music had traveled a long distance in a very short time.  Rather than the disparaging remarks of 1913, the day after Europe’s death, the New York Times said, “The loss is incalculable.  Ragtime may be Negro music, but it is American Negro music.  More alive than much other American music.  And, Europe was one of the Americans who was contributing most to its development.”

W. C. Handy wrote, “The man who had just come through the baptism of war’s fire and steel without a mark had been stabbed by one of his own musicians…The sun was in the sky. The new day promised peace. But all the suns had gone down for Jim Europe, and Harlem didn’t seem the same.”

Europe was granted the first ever public funeral for a black man in the city of New York. Funeral services, held at St. Mark's in New York on May 13, 1919, were attended by a throng of the prominent and the less-so,and people wept openly as his bier was carried slowly through the streets of Harlem. Following a second service in Washington, D.C. the following day, he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Noble 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.”

This article published January, 2013 by Richard G. Beil and the Parlor Songs Academy, Copyright © 2013 by Richard G. Beil. For academic or private use of the material in this article please see our usage policy.

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