James Reese Europe and the Hellfighters Band August 24 2009, 4 Comments

One of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the Black American experience in World War I was the history of James Reese Europe and the illustrious 369th Infantry Regiment band. When the United States entered World War I, Violinist Noble Sissle and Europe enlisted in the army together and organized a regimental band. The group accompanied the acclaimed 369th Infantry Regiment, the first American unit to arrive in France. The brave black unit, including the band, earned the nickname "Hellfighters" for its participation in several vital military campaigns.

The band appeared in a special triumphal concert at Chalons-Sur Marne France on July 4, 1919, under the direction of assistant conductor Eugene Markell (Reese had been gassed and was unable to appear). The concert was arranged by French war hero General Henri Gourand and over 500 soldiers and civilians packed the  temporary outdoor concert location near the railway station. The concert featured Nobel Sissle on vocals in his last wartime performance. Sissle later reported,  “and my how they did enjoy those good old American tunes and syncopated melodies, the quartets singing and the boys dancing.”

By the end of the war, the 369th Infantry Jazz Band ranked among the greatest bands in the world. Its personnel, as identified by Brian Rust's Jazz Records 1887 - 1942, included Noble Sissle on violin and vocals, Herb Flemming on trombone and Russell Smith on trumpet. Flemming, only nineteen at the time, went on to have a long distinguished career, performing with Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey. Russell Smith became one of the outstanding lead trumpet players in the big-band era two decades later. Reese also recruited the best drum major he could find: the Harlem dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

After the war, Europe proudly led his Hellfighters band in the nation's first parade of returning World War heroes. More than a million fans, watching the victorious march up New York's Fifth Avenue in mid-February 1919, gathered along the parade route to salute the heroes of the famed 369th Infantry as they strutted from Madison Square to Harlem. Europe and Sissle had written "On Patrol In No Man's Land" during their tenure overseas, and it quickly became a favourite among U.S. veterans. Pathé leaped at the opportunity to capitalize on its popularity as the doughboys returned to the United States. It was easily the most successful of the eleven recordings the 369th Infantry Jazz Band made for Pathé in March 1919.

Based on the success of "On Patrol In No Man's Land," James Europe's band scheduled an extensive tour of the country. Advertisements proclaimed" "65 BATTLING MUSICIANS DIRECT FROM THE FIGHTING FRONTS IN FRANCE - THE BAND THAT SET ALL FRANCE JAZZ MAD!" Ironically, after surviving the deadliest war in world history to that point and under going gas poisoning, Europe failed to live through the Hellfighter's national tour. A member of the drum section, irate at Europe for what he considered poor treatment, murdered him on May 10, 1919.

The funeral march took place in New York, the first public memorial service held for a black person in the city's history. The sombre procession followed part of the same route the 369th had marched in its victory parade just three months earlier. Lieutenant Europe was buried with full military honours at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. Noble Sissle, assisted by Eubie Blake, assumed leadership of the 369th Infantry Jazz Band, which completed its scheduled bookings. The tour culminated with a very successful engagement at the prestigious Palace Theatre in New York City.

Later, the two leaders took a smaller group on the road for a lengthy vaudeville junket, launching their productive partnership. At the time of his death, James Reese Europe was only thirty-nine years old and at the forefront of the emerging jazz movement. We can only speculate about what further contributions he might have made had he lived another few decades. He was on the threshold of a brilliant career and might have become one of the most important figures in the world of popular music. His death came less than two months after the Hellfighter's historic recordings for Pathé. In its promotional catalog, the record company proclaimed that Europe was "the world's greatest exponent of syncopation. You hear every moan of the trombones, and every roar of the saxophones, every shrill note of the clarinets. The swing, the rhythm and the fascination of the Jazzing makes you want to dance! You can't sit still!" The Hellfighters band no doubt was the defining moment in the history of Jazz in America and the advent into the main stream of the Black American musician.  The fact that James Reese  Europe and  Noble Sissle volunteered their services  to organize and train musicians under wartime conditions  and their ability to attract talented players, dancers, and singers speaks volumes about  patriotism among the black population of America. For further information on James Reese Europe read the 1992

Biography by Thomas L Morgan.