James Reese Europe, Harlem Hell Fighters
Dec 12, 2020
James Reese Europe was truly one of the early fathers of jazz. Eubie Blake called him the "Martin Luther King of music", because of his insistence on playing the music of his people. His 369th Infantry Regiment, consisting mainly of African Americans, are the legendary "Harlem Hell fighters" assigned to the French Army during World War 1. Jim Europe’s regimental band regularly paraded throughout Paris to great acclaim. They traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as civilians. They lit the fuse for jazz, playing in his words, "the product of our soul". Their music became the rage in France causing Noble Sissle to declare they started..."ragtimitis in France." Playing a pre-jazz ragtime syncopated style that was exciting and new. They contributed greatly to the morale of the war effort. "We have developed a kind of symphony music that, no matter what else you think, is different and distinctive, and that lends itself to the playing of the peculiar compositions of our race," said Europe.
The band included several Puerto Rican musicians that were very musically developed and contributed greatly to the ensemble. They would later be key players in the development of Latin and Salsa music in New York City.
The 369th Infantry Regiment were nicknamed the Black Rattlers. The nickname Men of Bronze was given them by the French. However the Germans whom they fought called them "Hell-fighters". During WW1, the 369th spent 191 days on the frontlines, more than any other American unit. They also suffered the most losses of any American regiment with 1,500 casualties.
The Harlem Hell fighters earned 170 French Croix de Guerres for bravery and made music history. The history of jazz is incomplete without the story of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hell fighters.
At the end of the war, the 369th Hell Fighters paraded through the city of New York, February 17th, 1919. After not being allowed to march in the cities send off parade the Hell Fighters, thru distinguished service, lead the victory parade on Fifth Avenue at 61st Street thru to Harlem.
James Reese Europe returned home from France more convinced than ever that the Negro music they began to develop should continue. He was well on his way writing and performing with his new group when an unfortunate altercation with one of his musicians sent Europe to an early grave.
Wikipedia notes.... W.C. Handy wrote "The man who had just come through the baptism of war's fire and steel without a mark had been stabbed by one of his own musicians ... The sun was in the sky. The new day promised peace. But all the suns had gone down for Jim Europe, and Harlem didn't seem the same." Europe was granted the first ever public funeral for a black American in the city of New York.
At the time of his death, he was the best-known black-American bandleader in the United States. This American hero is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.