James Reese Europe: America’s Jazz Ambassador

Today’s post was written by Robert Nowatzki. Robert is an Archives Technician in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park.

The musical career of American jazz bandleader, composer, and arranger James Reese Europe (1881-1919) was as influential and unique as it was tragically short. He played a leading role in introducing early jazz music into the U.S. military as a lieutenant during World War I in the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment (known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”), in which he served as a band leader. In addition, he promoted jazz–the music genre created by African Americans–in France while his regiment was attached to the French Army as part of the American Expeditionary Forces during the war. Europe’s concerts before audiences of French, British, and American military personnel was the birth of European interest in jazz music.

First Lieutenant James R. Europe and the 369th Infantry Regiment Band playing for patients in the American Red Cross Hospital No. 9, Paris, France, September 4, 1918. National Archives and Records Administration. (NAID: 55200536 Local Identifier: 111-SC-20417)

Born to Loraine Saxon and Henry Jefferson Europe in Mobile, Alabama on February 22, 1881, James moved with his parents and four siblings to Washington, DC when he was ten years old. In 1904 he moved to New York City, where in 1910 he formed an organization of African American musicians called the Clef Club in Harlem. The Clef Club Orchestra, the first all-Black orchestra in the U.S., consisted of 125 musicians, and it took New York City by storm when it performed a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1912. In the following years Europe recorded music for Victor Talking Machine Company. While this syncopated music was more like ragtime music than early jazz, it clearly was a precursor to the music that later became known as jazz and that was associated New Orleans-based musical legends such as Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, “King” Oliver, “Kid” Ory, and Louis Armstrong. In 1913 Europe formed Europe’s Society Orchestra (which included the famous jazz dancers Vernon and Irene Castle) in New York City as well as the 369th Infantry Regiment’s “Hellfighters Band” in France. Reese and his band returned with the 369th to Harlem in glory in February 1919, when they marched up Fifth Avenue in Harlem. Europe had already been outspoken about the lack of rights and respect for African Americans before his time in France, but his experiences there strengthened his convictions. He continued to record music during the following months, but in May 1919 his life was cut short at age 38 when he was fatally stabbed by his drummer during an argument.

First Lieutenant James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry Regiment band returning to the U.S., February 12, 1919. National Archives and Records Administration. NAID: 26431310 Local Identifier: 165-WW-127A-22.

The National Archives Catalog contains 85 digitized photographs of Europe, his marching band, and his regiment. They are included in Record Group 165 (Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860-1952) in a series of World War I photographs (NAID: 533461 Local Identifier: 165-WW), and in Record Group 111 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985) in a series devoted to U. S. military activities (NAID: 530707 Local Identifier: 111-SC). Europe is also mentioned in four textual records in the series National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013-2017, which is included in Record Group 79 (Records of the National Park Service, 1785-2006). In addition, the National Archives facility in College Park also houses records containing information about the 369th Regiment in the Divisional History Charts, 1918-1920 series, which is part of Record Group 120 (Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I), 1848-1942) (NAID: 6639491).

Conductor Wwi GIF by US National Archives - Find & Share on GIPHY
James Reese Europe conducting his band while troops disembark in New York City at the end of the war.
Port of Disembarkation, New York Harbor [1919], Reel 2. Local Identifier: 111-H-1181 (NAID: 24686)

National Archives photographic records relating to James Reese Europe:

  • Colored Troops – Colored Jazz Band and Leader back with Colored 15th New York. NAID: 26431310
  • Colored Troops – Lieutenant James Europe and his Famous Jazz Band of the 369th Colored Infantry in the Parade on 5th Avenue. NAID: 26431342
  • Colored Troops – Lieutenant Jimmie Europe and his Famous Jazz Band of the 369th Colored Infantry, formerly the 15th NY regulars. NAID: 26431340
  • Colored Troops – Colored Jazz Band and Leader back with Colored 15th New York. NAID: 26431352
  • Colored Troops – Famous Colored Regiment Arrives Home from France. NAID: 26431394
  • Colored Troops – Famous New York Colored soldiers return home. NAID: 26431448
  • Colored Troops – Famous Negro Band Greets U.S. Soldiers on Leave From Trenches. NAID: 26431530
  • [African American] Jazz Band and Leader Back with [African American] 15th New York. NAID: 533506
  • Lieutenant Jimmie [James Reese] Europe and his famous jazz band of the 369th [African American] Infantry, formerly 15th New York regulars. NAID: 533521
  • Lieutenant James [Reese] Europe and his famous band of the 369th Infantry in the parade in Fifth Avenue. NAID: 533522
  • Famous New York [African American] soldiers return home. NAID: 533575
  • Famous Negro band greets United States soldiers on leave from trenches. NAID: 533616
  • Famous [African American] regiment arrives home from France. NAID: 533548
  • 111-SC-20417. NAID: 55200536
  • 111-SC-21880. NAID: 55203458

National Archives Catalog tags related to James Reese Europe:

SIL!seg/mil

SIL!/ww1/arts

SIL!ww1/war

James Reese Europe

369th Infantry Regiment

369th

Harlem Hellfighters

Related National Archives blog posts and research guides:

Barbara Lewis Burger,  “And they thought we couldn’t fight”. Rediscovering Black History blog. National Archives and Records Administration, November 7, 2017.

Caitlin Hucik, The Harlem Hellfighters Return Home, Unwritten Record blog. National Archives and Records Administration, September 1, 2021.

Alice Kamps, The 1932 Bonus Army: Black and White Americans Unite in March on Washington. Pieces of History blog. National Archives and Records Administration, July 15, 2020.

Matthew Margis, A Brief Look at African American Soldiers in the Great War. The Unwritten Record blog. National Archives and Records Administration, February 13, 2017.

National Archives and Records Administration. African Americans in the Military during World War I research portal.

Audio samples of James Reese Europe’s music:

“The Dancing Deacon” performed by the Harlem Hellfighters Band/369th U.S. Infantry Band, conducted by James Reese Europe. Smithsonian Institution.

“Castle Walk” performed by Europe’s Society Orchestra. 1913. Library of Congress.

“Ballin’ the Jack” composed by James Reese Europe and Chis Smith. 1914. Library of Congress.

Other resources:

Reid Badger, A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Jami L. Bryan,  Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in World War I. National Museum of the United States Army. 

EDSITEment!: African-American Soldiers in World War I: The 92nd and 93rd Divisions. National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ronald Herd II (R2C2H2), James Reese Europe: Jazz Lieutenant. BookSurge Publishing, 2005.

Library of Congress, “James Reese Europe, 1881-1919” 

Teaching with Documents: Photographs of the 369th Infantry and African Americans during World War I

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