Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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EUROPE, James Reese

(b 22 February 1880, Mobile AL; d 10 May 1919) Bandleader, conductor, active organizer of black concerts and musical clubs. He showed musical promise at an early age; his family moved to Washington DC, and he lived a few doors away from John Philip Sousa. He went to New York City c.1904; he worked with Ernest Hogan in musical comedy. Hogan, whose real name was Reuben Crowder, had written the huge hit  'All Coons Look Alike To Me' in 1896, during the era of 'coon songs' and 'coon shouters', about a girl who dumps her boyfriend for another one with more money. Europe was soon directing the orchestras and choruses in all-black shows. He formed the Clef Club in 1910 and made it the premiere organization for black music in the country, an agency for black talent; the Clef Club Orchestra played concerts at Carnegie Hall 1912-14, and Europe also conducted concerts there of a Negro Symphony Orchestra. He recorded eight sides for Victor in late 1913 and early '14;  his 'Castle House Rag One-Step'/'Congratulations Waltz' stayed in print for five years on a 12-inch 78, unusual then outside classical music. In 1915 conducted the all-black show Darkydom.

In 1913 Europe had begun an association with Vernon and Irene Castle (see their entry). His musicians played in the Castles' dancing school and in a nightclub they owned; sheet music of compositions by Europe and his writing partner Ford Dabney sold well, and it became fashinable in high society to hire 'colored' bands. More importantly, he helped the Castles to invent their dances and to make their moves to a backbeat while they were popularizing ballroom dancing, inventing dances like the fox trot and sowing the seeds of the Swing Era; thus he had a profound influence on the century's music, both directly and indirectly.

The Castles planned to tour overseas in 1914, but WWI intervened. Europe had become close to Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (see their entries); in 1916 Europe and Sissle both joined the the 15th New York Infantry, a National Guard outfit. Blake, having less chance of becoming an officer, stayed behind to look after Europe's interests. His father having been born in slavery, Europe seems to have felt that an all-black unit from Harlem could do nothing but good for African-Americans. He was immediately asked to organize a military band and entertained countless troops and French civilians, but also learned to operate French machine guns and was the first African-American officer to led his men (the 'Harlem Hellfighters') into battle. Called away from the front, he led a U.S. Army band and took Paris by storm in 1918; the mixture of orchestral ragtime and jazz-age pop songs was called jazz: it was not, but he introduced features such as techniques of brass playing which he believed were racial/musical characteristics, and said that he had to rehearse his men to keep them from adding more to the music than he wanted.

Back in New York, Europe recorded 24 sides for the French Pathé company in New York in 1919, and had an even more brilliant future ahead of him when he was stabbed to death by an unstable musician, two days after the last recording session. Sissle was present when it happened; he and Blake went on to legendary success on Broadway, and had Europe not died so young, he would have been leading the pack. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Reid Badger's A Life In Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe was published by Oxford University Press in 1995.

The Pathés are now available on a Memphis Archives label in very good transfers. (This writer bought his copy at the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, a visit to which is highly recommended.) The Pathé brothers had started in the 1890s making cylinders like Edison's, but began making discs in 1906, inventing their own unusual process: recordings were made on a master cylinder the size of a roll of paper towels at 200rpm; these probably sounded terrific for the period, but not a single one survives. The recordings were then copied onto master discs by a mechanical pantograph type of machine, the noise it made included with the music. Pathé issued discs from 8.5 inches in diameter to a 20-inch manhole cover half an inch thick and weighing six pounds, but the Europe discs were all 10.5 inches. The discs were vertically cut, Edison's 'hill-and-dale' method rather than Berliner's lateral technique, and the grooves were very wide, requiring a special stylus; an ordinary 78 stylus is three thousanths of an inch across; the Europe records had to be played using a stylus more than twice as big, and at 83.5 rpm. Brad Kay at Superbatone Recordings solved all these problems, using discs from five different collections, and the CD called James Reese Europe's 369th U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band, allows us to hear some of the most interesting pop music of the period, the skill of the musicians evident.