James Reese Europe was a leading composer and bandleader in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, he was able to synthesize classical, ragtime, and march music to create a sound identity of the African-American community. He responded to criticism by saying, “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 … My success had come … from a realization of the advantages of sticking to the music of my own people.”
Europe originally enlisted in the New York National Guard, but was soon given a commission once his musical skill was discovered. He was charged with creating a band for the 369th Infantry Regiment which composed of African-American and Latino men. They were sent to France in December of 1917, eventually being assigned to the French Army, as American Soldiers refused to serve with the 369th troops. The French troops treated them fairly and were happy to have the help since they had already been fighting the Germans for many years. Unique to the 369th was their officers were also African-American, a first in the U.S. Army, of which Lieutenant Europe was one. The entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre for their gallant service in the American Expeditionary Force.
The music of the 369th Band was an instant morale booster for their fellow troops and also connected French, British, and other European Allies to a uniquely American cultural creation. This identity of American culture persists to the present day, as European audiences are generally more accepting of ‘jazz’ music than the country where it was born. Upon the unit’s return in February of 1919, they led the parade through New York City, with many of the local black population in attendance. A proud moment to see their fellow countrymen marching in victory to music created and played by African-Americans.
The 369th Experiencewas organized for the centennial celebration of the end of World War I. The group carries on the tradition of James Reese Europe and educates its audiences about this important time in American History. Later in the 20th Century, the U.S. Government used the music of African-Americans to project a National Identity to the world. The world then responded back through the infusion of blues and jazz into their popular styles. Practically all popular music made today across the globe has traces of the rhythms and melodies created by the African-American community.
Check out the West Point Band performing some of James Reese Europe’s compositions.