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From the Dancehall to the Battlefield with Jason Moran

Jason Moran stands against a wall, illuminated by a projection of graphic black lines.
Courtesy of the artist
Jason Moran

In a program with the Celebrity Series of Boston, pianist, composer, and educator Jason Moran explores the life and music of World War One-era composer James Reese Europe.

For a while, "James Reese Europe" was a name pianist and composer Jason Moran had heard of, but didn’t have a particularly deep relationship with. But that changed about a decade ago, when fellow pianist Randy Weston invited Moran into his home and proceeded, over the course of five hours, to tell the story of the "Harlem Hellfighter" to whom modern Black music owes so much.

Several years later, the 14-18 NOW project, a UK arts program commission to memorialize the centenary of the Great War, reached out to Moran asking if the pianist would consider a project focused on Europe.

"I thought, Oh, you know what? This is the time," remembered Moran. "This is what Randy Weston was preparing me for."

Jason Moran – The Harlem Hellfighters; James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin premiered in 2018, and in the years since, his connection with Europe's music has only deepened. New Year's Day 2023 saw the release of the Europe-inspired album From the Dancehall to the Battlefield. Now, he's bringing that program to Berklee Performance Center on Friday, Feb. 17, presented by The Celebrity Series of Boston.

It's crucial to note, though, that his is not a concert of straight arrangements. "My job is not to play a replica — that's never what I've done," said Moran. "One of the things that we hopefully understand about this music is that you actually find your way to play it. That's what Louis Armstrong teaches us, and it's what James Reese Europe teaches us about how to remix things. So I'm doing a version that looks at the way I think his music connects to today."

Cover page for a piece of James Reese Europe's sheet music in the Library of Congress collections.
Library of Congress
James Reese Europe sheet music in the Library of Congress collections.

Over a century has passed since James Reese Europe’s murder at the age of 38. His name recognition has undoubtedly faded; such is the consequence of the years and the fragility of memory. However, it is extremely hard to overstate his celebrity at the height of his musical powers. He was an artistic pioneer in the truest sense, and no comprehensive discussion of jazz history is complete without him. After all, he was dispensing dance hall jams when jazz was still a novel word, and editors were placing those four letters between quotes in their headlines.

James Reese Europe was born in 1881, in Mobile, Alabama, and moved with his family to Washington, D.C. at the age of ten. He took up violin and counted United States Marine Corps Band Assistant Director Enrico Hurlei among his teachers. By 1904, he was living in New York, with a dream of composing music for Black Broadway shows. Producer and entertainer Ernest Hogan recruited Europe to compose for his group, the Memphis Students. It proved to be the first of several successes that would propel Europe to the fore of American pop music. In 1910, he co-founded the Clef Club, a multi-purpose society for working Black musicians that functioned (among other things) as a union office, a social club, a booking agency and a financial clearing house. It also reviewed contracts for Black musicians.

The most brilliant facet of this crown jewel of Black entertainment was Europe's Clef Club Orchestra, a massive, all-Black ensemble that within two years of its formation played Carnegie Hall, in 1912. It was the first Black band to do so, and returned in 1913 and 1914.

Europe's stock only rose — he was the first Black man to secure a recording contract (Victor, 1914) and was a frequent collaborator with ballroom dance legends Vernon and Irene Castle. This was a generation obsessed with dancing, and Europe was providing a soundtrack characterized by fast tempos, syncopated takes on popular tunes, and new, vibrant colors from otherwise familiar instruments.

Lt. James Europe
Wikimedia Commons
Lt. James Reese Europe

Still, if you look up any picture of James Reese Europe today, you will inevitably be met with a bespectacled visage most dignified, the bald eagle of the Great Seal affixed to his brimmed officer's cap. This is a U.S. Army Officer — Lieutenant James Reese Europe, and it's his time in the armed forces for which he is both best known and most influential. It's also the inspiration for Moran's album and program.

"His music was prominent in the dance halls of New York City, but that dance hall was not enough for him," explained Moran. "He wanted to show not only his bravery, but the bravery of his people and signing up to fight in World War One takes him to the battlefield."

When Europe enlisted with the New York 15th he was originally attached to a machine gun company. But his superiors, recognizing his celebrity, gave him a handsome budget (Moran estimates around a quarter-million dollars in today's value), and asked him to recruit fellow musicians to form a regimental band. On New Year's Day, 1918, the New York 15th arrived in France, and Europe's band dazzled Americans and Europeans alike with their rags, marches, waltzes, blues, and the early kernels of a thing called "jazz." The French, in particular, couldn't get enough.

Lieutenant James Reese Europe and the New York 15th.
Wikimedia Commons
Lieutenant James Reese Europe and the New York 15th

"They cross the Atlantic and arrive on the shores of France, and they step off the boat and they play the remixed version of the Marseillaise — French national anthem," Moran shared. "The audience is first confused, and then realizes that this band is playing a remix of the anthem and loses their mind. Thus begins this infatuation with how Harlem sounds." American music — Black American music— had traversed the maritime graveyard of its ancestors and landed in Europe to exert its influence.

Europe's band wasn't just organized for entertainment. A few months after their arrival, in March 1918, the New York 15th was reformed as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment. It distinguished itself bravely in combat and earned the nickname "The Harlem Hellfighters." Upon the conclusion of the war, Europe's band went on tour, and played a parade that marched up Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Only one complete recording of Europe's wartime band still exists, but he did secure another recording contract (this time with Pathé) and left records we can still hear today.

Unfortunately, as with so many artistic titans, Europe's life was terminated young, leaving generations to wonder, "What if?" The cause was a dispute that boiled over into violence: during a concert at Boston's Mechanics Hall (near the modern-day Prudential Center), a verbal altercation between Europe and drummer Herbert Wright turned physical, after Wright stabbed his bandleader in the neck with a pen knife. Europe felt his odds of survival were in his favor, and encouraged his band to finish the set while he recovered at the hospital, but he did not survive. Thousands attended the funeral procession from Harlem to Columbus Circle in New York.

A century later, new listeners are appreciating Europe's enormous impact: Miami Beach's New World Symphony presented a concert celebrating his legacy, and a documentary feature by Elegance Bratton is on the way.

And there are Moran's projects: "I call him the big bang of jazz — or one of the big bangs in Black music," the pianist said. "[We] still live under that umbrella that he created 100 years ago."

For more information about Jason Moran and the Celebrity Series of Boston, visit the Celebrity Series website.

James Bennett II is a Digital Writer/Announcer for CRB and a reporter in the newsroom at GBH.