History Lesson: James Reese Europe, The Harlem Hellfighters, And How Jazz Conquered France

Before there was jazz, there was ragtime, which was kind of jazz in its prototype form. Ragtime started, for the most part, in the jasmine scented bordellos of New Orleans and St. Louis where African-American pianists like Jelly Roll Morton incorporated a sped up “ragged” rhythm to Sousa-like marches which had become popular in the late 19th century. Ragtime spread like wildfire around the country. It was the first truly American genre of music and it hit at the perfect time when the American economy was doing well enough that people had time for leisure activities like ballroom dancing where the quick ragtime beat was perfect. Now, no one knows exactly at what point ragtime became jazz (which was named for that jasmine whorehouse perfume). Plenty of music scholars and jazz fans have their opinion on what the first piece of music that truly can be called jazz was, but there is no definitive answer. It was a gradual transition that happened as the musicians began improvising more, and the instruments that made up a ragtime band began to change. We do know however, the exact moment that jazz landed for the first time on foreign shores, and became an international phenomenon.

Down Home Rag – Europe’s Society Orchestra

On New Year’s Day 1918 the finest, and largest, regimental army band the world has ever heard staggered off the troop ship Pocahontas in Brest, France. A light snow was falling as the band struck up La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France. Behind them was the 15th New York National Guard, one of the very first American regiments to make it to Europe during World War I. Their trip to France was a difficult one. First their ship broke down shortly after setting off from Hoboken, New Jersey. Once repaired, it was then struck by another ship just as it left the harbor. The frustrated soldiers wouldn’t let it turn back and repaired a giant hole in the side as it tried to catch up to the cross Atlantic convoy it was part of. Then upon reaching France, they had to sit in that harbor for several weeks as they waited for a berth to open up so they could disembark. America had just started to mobilize itself and was sending a steady stream of supplies to its allies overseas. But, not many troops just yet.

Despite pleading from France and England to loan them fresh soldiers, President Wilson wanted the American army to fight on its own during the Great War in order to establish itself as a major world power that would have an influential seat during postwar talks. But, the 15th New York was not a typical American regiment. They were a segregated all African-American unit of volunteers mostly from New York and New Jersey. They were arriving in France relatively early because they had just come from training in Spartanburg, South Carolina where their presence had almost started a race war. Looking to avoid an incident like what had happened in Houston several months earlier where a clash between citizens and black soldiers had left 16 Houstonians dead and 19 African-Americans hanged (look it up, it’s horrible), General “Black Jack” Pershing decided to end the 15th’s training early and get them to France ASAP where they were only going to work as stevedores and ditch diggers anyway. Or, so that’s what everyone expected.

It took a while for the French citizens of Brest to recognize the tune that was playing at a rhythm that made one want to tap their toes, and move their body in an unholy way that snowy New Year’s. People stopped what they were doing and gazed in wonder at the dark skinned Americans now parading through the port town. France had been using colonial African soldiers since the start of the war, so it wasn’t the color of their skin that had everyone agape. The sound of their instruments was like nothing they had ever heard before. The normally familiar melody of La Marseillaise was buried under syncopated rhythms and horns that seemed to have minds of their own, sometimes perfectly mated to the other instruments in the band, but then suddenly flying off on their own tangent like the musical equivalent of a dog that had just seen a squirrel. For a country beaten down by a war that seemingly had no end, this music, this jazz, was a sudden burst of joy. A cultural bomb that would have as big an impact on life in Europe as the literally billions of literal bombs that exploded across the continent during WWI.

James Reese Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1880, the son of a former slave who soon showed talent as a musician. When he was nine, his family, like so many black southern families, moved north to Washington, D.C. Jim’s parents were always filling their house with music. His mother, a teacher, played piano and his father could apparently, according to a friend, “play about anything that would emit a sound when properly coaxed, and he wasn’t particular what.” Jim followed in his father’s footsteps and took up the piano, violin, and mandolin, three of the primary instruments in a ragtime band. Europe was tall and stocky and had an organizational mind which made him a natural bandleader. In 1903, he left Washington for New York City to pursue a career in music in the nation’s music hub. He quickly garnered a reputation as a talented bandleader and composer, writing and conducting music for what was then a thriving African-American musical theater scene. This brought him to the attention of Vernon and Irene Castle, a husband and wife dance team who were two of the most famous entertainers of their time.

A collection of unfortunately low quality clips of the Castles. At the end is a segment from the Fred Astaire – Ginger Rogers movie The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

They recognized that ragtime was great to dance to, and that the best ragtime bands were black. So, they hired Jim Europe to be their exclusive composer and band leader. He had recently formed the Clef Club, an organization of African-American musicians that acted as a union since the other musician unions were white only. Though the club, Jim formed a band that would tour with the Castles spreading both ragtime and the very concept of black music around the country. At one point, the Castles were booked to perform at Carnegie Hall, but the local musicians union said that no black musician would ever play in the pit at Carnegie. So, the Castles had Jim set up his band right on stage with them which delighted the audience and probably did more for race relations in New York than anything until Jackie Robinson came along. Most of Europe’s compositions for the Castles were performed at breakneck speed which let the Castles show off their athletic moves.

One of the things the Castles did was to come up with steps that anyone could learn and it was this that made them so popular. They had grace and style that could be copied by anyone. They brought a certain culture to the riffraff. But, it still took a lot of practice to dance like the Castles. One day, Europe brought them a tune that was played slightly slower. Vernon wasn’t sure it was appropriate, but Irene liked it and thought they could modify an older dance, the foxtrot, to suit it. It became an instant sensation and the new foxtrot became the American dance step for decades to come, eventually morphing into swing dancing during the next war.

In 1917, inspired by the writings of W.E.B Du Bois, James Europe joined a new, all black National Guard Regiment with headquarters in Harlem, the 15th New York. His intention was to be a soldier. To prove himself both as a man and as an American. But when Colonel William Hayward, the white commanding officer most responsible for the regiment’s existence, heard he had the famous bandleader, James Reese Europe in his regiment, he saw an opportunity. The regiment had very little support from the federal government. Even with the drums of war drifting over from Europe, the men of the 15th had to train with broomsticks instead of rifles, and were practicing digging trenches in cramped Manhattan backyards. A great regimental band would be a terrific way to promote the regiment and maybe get it some proper backing and recognition. Hayward asked Europe if he would put a band together and lead it. Europe joined up to do something different than his day job. He wanted to be a soldier. But, he also didn’t want to refuse a request from his commanding officer, so he accepted under conditions he thought would be impossible to meet. A normal army band was 25 to 30 musicians, but Europe couldn’t see a proper band being less than 40 and would probably need 60 to make it sound right. Also, since this was a marching band, he couldn’t use the string and percussion instruments of a usual ragtime band, so he would need extra horns and woodwinds and the best clarinet guys were from Puerto Rico, so he’d need to go down there and recruit some. “Fine,” was the answer from Hayward and James Reese Europe was now an Army bandleader.

Back in France, the 15th New York toiled away doing menial labor. They unloaded ships, built railroads, worked as butlers and cooks. Just about anything except fighting Germans. Until finally, in March, Pershing decided he would let the desperate French have some American soldiers. He still didn’t want any of his men fighting under foreign flags, but he did have some black guys he wasn’t sure what to do with, so why not kill two birds with one stone. The 15th New York was renamed the 369th and became part of the French 16th Division. They would spend more time on the front lines than any other American regiment and were the first American soldiers to reach the Rhine River. They would earn themselves the nickname The Harlem Hellfighters and were one of the most decorated regiments of the entire war. James Reese Europe, and the band, were spared much of the fighting as they became ambassadors of the whole American army, playing jazz for American soldiers on R&R as well as dignitaries, foreign leaders, and pretty much half the population of France. But, that’s not to say they were never in the trenches.

One night, Europe was chatting with some veteran French soldiers who were trading grim war stories. Jim, trying to sound brave himself, piped up that he lamented they were in a quiet sector as he wished he could go on a raiding party. Often at night, small parties of soldiers would sneak across no man’s land to the other side’s trenches to try and take prisoners and cause general mayhem. “You’re in luck,” one French captain told Jim, “we have a party going tomorrow night. Ask your colonel if you can join us.” Hayward was more than happy to give permission, much to Jim’s chagrin. The next night, Jim and twenty French soldiers made the harrowing trek across no man’s land to the German lines. They handed him a pistol so small he thought it was a toy and told him not to make any noise. Once they reached the German trench, everything happened so fast, Jim could only stand in the spot where he hopped down into the trench as the French ran from dugout to dugout throwing grenades and wreaking havoc. After several minutes of mayhem, everyone jumped back out of the trench and back to their own side. The experience was so frightening, Europe said he would only do it again if he got orders signed by General Pershing himself.

On Patrol in No Man’s Land – Jim Europe’s 369th Regimental Band. Written by Europe while recovering in a field hospital.

He would later be injured in a gas attack and spend most of his time in the war in Paris, where his band spread the gospel of jazz, unleashing African-American music on the world. The rest of the Harlem Hellfighters, despite being a footnote in most histories of WWI, continued to fight with the French through the fall offensive that won the war. The very first American WWI war hero, Henry Johnson, was a Harlem Hellfighter. He fought off a whole German raiding party almost single handedly with a bolo knife, killing four and wounding who knows how many. And, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, despite heavy casualties, the 369th captured the key town of Séchault in the Champagne region in a fierce battle that led to the destruction of some important German rail lines.

The Harlem Hellfighters march up Fifth Avenue upon returning home to New York, Feb. 1919

Unlike most returning soldiers, the Harlem Hellfighters did not return to America as heroes. White Americans, unsurprisingly, resented blacks with uniforms and guns something fierce. Of the over 350,000 African-Americans who were enlisted during WWI, the vast majority never saw combat. They did the menial, back breaking work the 15th New York did when they first arrived in France. And the ones that did see the trenches were often denied combat veteran pensions when the war was over. Or were lynched for daring to wear their uniform. The summer of 1919 is called the Red Summer for all the racial violence that took place. During a still raging flu pandemic, mind you. James Reese Europe, unfortunately, fell victim to violence himself. Not to white supremacists, but to one of the members of his own band.

Hoping to capitalize on the Hellfighters’ band’s notoriety right away, he and the band embarked on a tour almost immediately upon returning to the U.S. One night in Boston, one of the drummers started an argument with Europe. Apparently whenever the other drummer made a mistake, Jim would blame this guy. At one point, fury took over, and he stabbed Jim in the neck with a penknife. It’s possible he was suffering from PTSD and coming home from a war and instantly going on a music tour without any time to visit home and family was too much and the guy snapped. Despite surviving no man’s land and German gas shells, Big Jim Europe was taken down by one of his own men. He died on May 19, 1919. He was the first black man to have a public funeral in New York. Thousands came to honor him and he was acclaimed as the King of Jazz. It’s hard to know what heights he would have reached had he lived. Other musicians and composers took on the mantle of Jazz Kings and, sadly, James Reese Europe was largely forgotten. But, he will always be the guy who introduced the world to jazz, probably America’s most important cultural export since it predated everything else. And, maybe, when Jim Europe was forced to rework his ragtime band into a band that could play on the move with more horns and no strings, ragtime truly became jazz.

St. Louis Blues – Jim Europe’s 369th Regimental Band. A perfect example of Europe’s revolutionary arrangements.



  1. WOW!

    This is like watching a powerful movie that takes a few long minutes to snap back to your own reality after watching.

    Thank you for writing and sharing this.

    My only knowledge of Ragtime, until now, was from this song:

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