Amsterdam News in the Classroom: James Reese Europe: Unsung American music genius

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 9/13/2012, 1:31 p.m.
Today's lesson takes a look at one of music's greatest innovators, a man that famed...
Amsterdam News in the Classroom: James Reese Europe: Unsung American music genius

The group, now known as the 369th Regiment, was ordered to France. They arrived on New Year's Day 1918 and wasted no time dazzling the French with their brassy, sassy and completely unique sound. The band was sent out to perform at Army camps and in villages. French musicians tried reading the band's charts and copying their sound but could not. American musicians contended that the instruments must be rigged. How did they get that sound? This made Europe's band even more popular.

But the time to fight came on April 20, 1918. Europe and his men saw the first of 191 days of combat. By the war's end, 171 men from the 369th Regiment were decorated for bravery, more than any other. The men were especially proud of the name the French gave them, "The Hell Fighters."

On Feb. 17, 1919, the triumphant 369th Regiment returned to a hero's welcome, marching along New York's Fifth Avenue to Harlem to the cheers of frenzied crowds.

Europe and his Hell Fighters Band made 24 recordings and began touring the country promoting their music, which was a unique blend of jazz and ragtime unlike anything heard before or since. The 369th Infantry Jazz Band was now considered one of the world's best.

"We won France," Europe said, "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."

Europe had big plans for his music. He was on the brink of the great success he had always wanted, but after surviving the rigors of war, he would sadly meet his demise on American soil at the hands of one of his own.

On May 9, 1919, Europe was in Boston to lay a wreath at the base of the memorial for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the first Black regiment to fight in the Civil War. But that evening, he was confronted by one of his musicians, a drummer named Herbert Wright. The drummer accused his boss of not treating him fairly. Without warning, Wright stabbed Europe in the neck with a penknife. Europe bled to death from his wound. He was just 39 years old and at the top of the emerging jazz scene.

The city of New York gave Europe an official funeral, the first ever given to a Black citizen. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Composer Noble Sissle said of his old friend, "In the death of Lt. Jim Europe, the world lost a genius and our race a most needed leader and benefactor."


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and music of James Reese Europe.
  • Listen up: Check out the music of James Reese Europe on iTunes. Some of his notable recordings include "Castle House Rag," "That Moaning Trombone" and "On Patrol in No Man's Land."
  • Talk About It: James Reese Europe had great talent and great determination. Talk about how he found success despite the obstacles of racism and war.

This Week in Black History

  • Sept. 10 - John Roy Lynch, speaker of the House in Mississippi and the first Black chairman of the Republican Convention, was born on this date in 1847.
  • Sept. 13 - Alain LeRoy Locke, professor of philosophy and the first Black Rhodes Scholar (1908), was born in Philadelphia on this date in 1886.
  • Sept. 14 - Constance Baker Motley, Manhattan borough president and the first Black woman appointed to a federal judgeship in the United States, was born in New Haven, Conn., on this date in 1921.