James Reese Europe

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James Reese Europe

February 1, 2018- Today's Harlem Topic: James Reese Europe

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James Reese Europe was one of the most significant figures in African American Music and one
of America’s greatest musicians. His arrival in New York pre-dated the start of the Harlem
Renaissance and paved the way for the musical explosion about to happen.

Eubie Blake said “ He was our benefactor and our inspiration. He was the Martin Luther King of

Europe was born in Mobile Alabama in 1881 and move to New York in 1904. He started out as
a pianist eventually playing regularly at Barron Wilkins Exclusive Club. George Gershwin
recalled sitting on the curb outside the club as a 7 year old listening for hours to Europe play the

He also got heavily involved in the black theater composing music and contributing songs to a
variety of productions.

In 1910 he formed “The Clef Club” a ground breaking professional organization designed to
serve as a union and contracting agency for black musicians as well as highlighting the value,
dignity, and professionalism of black performers. The Clef Club was instrumental in beginning
to change racial attitudes towards black musicians.

On May 12, 1912 the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra performed “A Concert of Negro Music” at
Carnegie Hall presenting works exclusively by black composers. It was one of the most
important events in black music history, 26 years before Benny Goodman’s famed Carnegie Hall

In 1914 Europe formed an association with Vernon and Irene Castle, the popular dance duo
credited, along with Europe, in creating the Turkey Trot and The Fox Trot. Europe was not the
first black musician to play for white dancers but the enormous popularity of the Castles had a
major impact on how black music was viewed by white society. Europe’s arrangement of W.C.
Handy’s Memphis Blues is said to be the primary inspiration that led to The Fox Trot.

In 1916, with World War 1 upon us, Europe joined the 15th Infantry of the New York National
Guard. He started out as part of a machine gun company but was soon asked to join the 369th
New York Regimental Band that became known as “The Harlem Hell fighters”. The band was a
huge hit in France performing original African American music previously unheard outside the
United States.

In 1919 he was welcomed home a hero. The band paraded up Fifth Ave heading home to
Harlem to the cheers and applause of thousands. Plans were made to embark on a US tour but
Europe was tragically murdered by a disgruntled musician before the tour could take place.
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.”

James Reese Europe was granted the first ever public funeral for a black man in New York City.
Funeral Services were held at St. Mark’s on May 13, 1919 and were attended by a who’s who of
prominent New Yorkers. Following a second service in Washington D.C. he was buried with full
military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

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