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James Reese Europe
with one of the Clef Club Bands, and with the 369th Regiment Military Band (the "Harlem Hellfighters") in Paris, 1917

James Reese Europe was born on February 22, 1881, in Mobile, Alabama. His family moved to Washington, D.C., and he received his musical education there. In 1905, Europe moved to New York and played piano in local night clubs. He also met and worked with the Bob Cole/Johnson Brothers team and the Williams and Walker Company. In 1910, Europe organized the Clef Club, an organization of Harlem jazz instrumentalists that provided the music for society parties and dances. In 1912, they made history when they played a concert at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of the Colored Music Settlement School. The Clef Club Orchestra was the first jazz band to play at Carnegie Hall. Under Europe's direction, the well-dressed orchestra played skillfully and became very popular. This was a breakthrough for African-American musical groups who had previously been limited to the banjo and bone-playing of the minstrel stage.

When World War I started in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the United States neutral. However, in 1917, the United States formally declared war. Of the 750,000 men in the Army and National Guard, approximately 20,000 of them were African Americans. This was significant because at the start of the war, African Americans volunteered for the Armed Services and were rejected. But on May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed, providing for the enlistment of all able-bodied American men between the ages of 21 and 31. Before the end of these enlistments, more than two million black men had registered.

James Europe, who had been touring with the dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, was asked by Colonel William Haywood to organize a band for the U.S. 15th Infantry. Europe brought men from all over the United States and from Puerto Rico to form one of the most popular overseas bands during the war. The 15th New York Infantry was training in Spartansburg, South Carolina, when a racial incident occurred involving Noble Sissle, the drum major. When the other militiamen heard about the incident, they wanted to retaliate. But Lt. James R. Europe, the bandmaster, ordered the men to disperse. The War Department decided to send the 15th N.Y. Infantry, now the 369th Regiment of the U.S. Army, to France. They became the first contingent of African-American combat troops to go to war. They were nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters" and performed for the troops and the French people and government officials during the war, bringing jazz to France.

The 369th returned from Europe with honors on February 17, 1919. More than one million people witnessed the triumphant parade from Lower Manhattan, up Fifth Avenue to Harlem. The "Harlem Hellfighters" marching band led the troops, and as they turned off 110th Street onto Lenox Avenue, the band began to play "Here Comes My Daddy Now." The crowd was exuberant!

 

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