James Reese Europe was an early 20th-century composer, musician, soldier, and bandleader who was called "the Martin Luther King of music" by Eubie Blake for his contributions to both the development of ragtime and early as well as opening doors for African American musicians to receive the recognition and respect they deserved as artists.
The "Jazz King"
In 1910, Europe founded the Clef Club in New York, which featured both an orchestra and choir of its more than 200 members but also served as a union and booking agency for African American musicians. In 1912, the Clef Club Orchestra was the first proto-jazz ensemble to perform at Carnegie Hall featuring music written solely by black composers. Europe believed it crucial that black musicians embrace their own style and music, saying, "We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It's the product of our souls; it's been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race."
During WWI, Europe was a commissioned lieutenant in the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hell Fighters." The 369th consisted of mainly African Americans and was attached to a French regiment when white American soldiers objected to serving alongside them. Europe fought and also led the 369th's band, which was enthusiastically received by French audiences in love with its syncopated style and would help build an international audience for the jazz musicians that followed.
Under the leadership of Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center held a series of performances and discussions to explore the legacy of James Reese Europe.
On Nov. 12, the Kennedy Center hosted the 369th Experience, an ensemble comprised of students from HBCUs recreating the Harlem Hell Fighters band from their music to their uniforms.
Jason Moran with historian Gene Alexander Peters
James Reese Europe III introduces "That Moaning Trombone"