Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in World War I

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James Reese Europe

Courtesy of the National Archives.

Before enlisting in the army in 1916, James Reese Europe was a celebrated composer, conductor, and musical director in New York City. In 1912 he led 125 singers and instrumentalists in a "Symphony of Negro Music" at Carnegie Hall in the first performance by a black orchestra at the famous venue. Later he toured the country with his Society Orchestra and the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, revolutionizing American social dancing and popularizing formerly objectionable ragtime dances such as the fox-trot. In the fall of 1913, Europe's Society Orchestra became the first black musical group to sign a contract with Victor Records, for which they produced ten recordings of dance music. As a member of the "Harlem Hell Fighters," Europe served as the leader of the regiment's outstanding brass band and as commander of a machine gun company. He served on the front for four months, was the first black American officer to lead troops in combat in WWI, and introduced European audiences to the live sound of American ragtime, blues, and a new genre called "jazz." After participating in the welcome-home parade up Fifth Avenue on 17 February 1919, Europe was signed to a second recording contract and he took his band on a tour of the United States. Tragically, he died a few months later after being stabbed during the intermission of a concert in Boston by a band member, cutting short a career of seemingly endless potential and robbing history of one of the early great jazz bandleaders and composers. Following the first-ever public funeral in New York City for an African American, Europe was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

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