James Reese Europe: Hellfighter Bandleader

Image 1: Cover of “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” Sheet Music

Image Source: Library Of Congress

Context: Cover of “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” sheet music from 1919, featuring band leader Lieutenant James Reese Europe and the 369th Infantry Band. During WWI the military was still heavily segregated, with the 369th and 370th Regiments being designated the African American regiments. The 369th, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”, primarily came from Harlem, New York.

Image 2: “Genuine Jazz for the Yankee Wounded”

Image Source: Library Of Congress

Context: Title reads: “Genuine Jazz for the Yankee Wounded” Caption: “In the courtyard of a Paris hospital for the American wounded, an American negro military band, led by Lt. James R. Europe, entertains the patients with real American jazz.” The image shows African American musicians in the 369th Infantry Regiment band led by James Reese Europe in 1918.

Image 3: “African American Jazz Band Leader Back With [the] 15th”

Image Source: PICRYL

Context: Caption reads: “African American jazz band leader back with [the] 15th. Lieutenant James Reese Europe, well-known in New York dancing circles, and formerly with Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, returns from battle with 369th ([African American]) (old New York 15th) Regiment, under command of Colonel Hayward.” Here Europe is standing in front of members of his band while they look on admirably in 1918.

Questions for Students:

  1. Who do you think the intended audience is for the sheet music? What about the pictures?
  2. Who might have taken these pictures, and for what purpose?
  3. What do you think the purpose of having the band play overseas? Can you think of any contemporary comparisons?
  4. Knowing that the U.S. military was segregated at this time, how do you think the band was received overseas? How about by their fellow White servicemen?

Instructional Goals and Model Answers:

SWBAT:

  • understand how context/background information influences the content of the document
  • identify and evaluate the author’s purpose in producing the document
  1. The intended audience would most likely be those who have a piano in their home or have access to one at a club, meeting hall, cafe, bar, etc. The intended audience for the pictures would be those reading about the war effort at home via a newspaper. it might also be simply for documenting, since the military was known for that.
  2. As previously said, the military was keen on documenting everything, so the person taking the pictures might be part of that part of the military. The purpose of these pictures would most likely be for morale-boosters. Showing pictures of American bands playing to soldiers in Europe would be extremely uplifting to both those in the U.S. and abroad. A prototypical example of “soft power”.
  3. As previously said, the band would potentially be quite the morale booster for service men who have been at sea for a long time. Hearing jazz, which at the time was a very new sound, would give American soldiers a taste of home. Contemporary comparisons would be the many different Army bands currently in service as well as the USO.
  4. Most likely, foreign soldiers would be in awe at the new sound they were hearing. This might arguably be Europe’s (the continent) first taste of American jazz. As for American servicemen, I would imagine it would be pretty split. Some would be excited to hear these sounds of their homeland, while others might think they don’t belong in the military at all.

Featured Image Source: PICRYL

3 Replies to “James Reese Europe: Hellfighter Bandleader”

  1. Ok so I’ve kinda gone off the deep end with regards to this James Reese Europe dude. Apparently he was THE preeminent bandleader in New York in the two decades prior to enlisting with the Hellfighters and was wildly famous in jazz circles at the time.

    His death is nuts too; not even a year after he returned from the war he was playing a three set gig at a club in NYC. During setbreak he got into an argument with two of his drummers (who were brothers funny enough), criticizing them for their poor performance and musicianship. Things got heated, they got into a scuffle, and it ended with one of the brothers stabbing Europe in the jugular with a pen. He died at the hospital later that night.

    In addition to his contributions to jazz and music, he was also outspoken in regard to the “negro cause”. Take a look at the newspaper interview with the New York Evening Sun, appearing in The Twin City Star in May 1916. He extols the virtue of the “negro musician”, mentioning “Perhaps it is fair to say that the Negro has contributed to American music whatever distinctive quality it possesses.” A statement that certainly holds up to this day.

    First half:
    https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90060427/1916-02-19/ed-1/seq-1/print/image_681x648_from_3877%2C2593_to_7068%2C5632/

    Second Half:
    https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90060427/1916-02-19/ed-1/seq-1/print/image_681x648_from_3880%2C5579_to_7071%2C8618/

  2. Kyle,
    What a fascinating lesson idea. Excellent documentary sources, questions, goals and model answers. I’m pleased to see you integrating your musical background into an engaging lesson for students that uses music as a springboard for deeper learning about the intersection of WWI and America’s racist legacy.

    Cool idea extending post with your comment!

    BTW – Don’t know if you subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson’s daily posts. Deep dives into the historical perspectives on current events. Here’s her recent post on “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act” in the context of Jan 6th insurrection and Afghan withdrawal.

  3. I really like that your questions ask the students to relate the content to current events. I think one of the best ways to remember history is to apply the themes and events to your own life. Making those personal connections can really be beneficial!

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