Harlem Hellfighters: Ambassadors of Jazz

The 369th Infantry Regiment brought more than bravery in battle to France; it brought a musical marvel, a unique, syncopated sensation that some historians consider as “America’s greatest cultural gift to the globe.” (Maloney)

Grown from the ragtime roots of the African American community, this revolutionary kind of music became an instant phenomenon across Europe: jazz.

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Fig. 1.   United States Army,  Genuine jazz for the yankee wounded In the courtyard of a Paris hospital for the American wounded, an American negro military band, led by Lt. James R. Europe, entertains the patients with real American jazz, Library of Congress.

Few could claim more credit for this cultural diplomacy than the 369th Infantry Band leader, Lieutenant James Reese Europe.  Deemed the “Martin Luther King of music,” Europe was a well established and respected musician prior to his overseas tenure with the 369th.  Innovative and versatile, his accomplishments included organizing the Clef Club in New York City, an agency for contracting and nurturing the talent of Black artists; conducting a grand “Concert of Negro Music” with a 125-man orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1912; and collaborating with popular dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle to invent the fox-trot, a ballroom dance which is still popular today. (Padua)

Lt. Europe’s musical talents continued to impress after America’s entry into World War I, with the 369th’s Regimental Band quickly becoming known across continental Europe as the best in the world.  “Paris is taken away with [Jazz] and our style of dancing,” wrote AEF officer Charles Hamilton Houston in January 1919. “The girls come after the boys in taxis and beg them to go to the dance. Colored boys are all the go.” (Reft)

 

Fig. 2  Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry Band. “Memphis Blues.” James Reese Europe with his 369th U.S. Infantry “Hellfighters” Band [sound recording] : the complete recordings, Library of Congress.

The French in particular were so taken with the 369th’s unique sound that the regimental band’s performance in a concert at the Tuileries Garden drew 50,000 listeners.  “Everywhere we gave a concert it was a riot,” Lt. Europe said in a 1919 interview. (Maloney)  It wasn’t just the servicemen and civilians who were swept up in the jazz craze; French musicians in attendance would approach the 369th and, reading from the band’s sheet music, would attempt to duplicate the melodies only to be missing that je ne sais quoi that these black musicians possessed.

“Who would have thought,” mused Sgt. Nobel Sissle, the 369th drum major, “that [the] little U.S.A. would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn to learn how to play it?“ (Sissle 121)

 


Sources
Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry Band. “Memphis Blues.” James Reese Europe with his 369th U.S. Infantry “Hellfighters” Band [sound recording] : the complete recordings, Memphis Archives, 1919. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=20642&recPointer=0&recCount=25&searchType=1&bibId=18683455>.
Levin, Floyd. Classic Jazz: A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians. University of California Press, 2000.
Maloney, Wendi. “World War I: American Jazz Delights the World.” Library of Congress, 24 Jan. 2018, https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2018/01/world-war-i-american-jazz-delights-the-world/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2018.
Padua, Pat. “African-American History Month: James Reese Europe.” Library of Congress, 24 Feb. 2010, https://blogs.loc.gov/music/2010/02/james-reese-europe/. Accessed 24 Sept. 2018.
Reft, Ryan. Charles Hamilton Houston & World War I. Library of Congress, 12 Dec. 2017, https://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=8203.
Sissle, Noble Lee. Memoirs of “Jim” Europe. 1942. Carbon copy of typescript. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=musmisc&fileName=ody/ody0717/ody0717page.db&recNum=0&itemLink=/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart7.html@0717&linkText=9>.
United States Army. Signal Corps, photographer. Genuine jazz for the yankee wounded In the courtyard of a Paris hospital for the American wounded, an American negro military band, led by Lt. James R. Europe, entertains the patients with real American jazz. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2016651602/>.

 

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