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David and Art - The Music Man

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Musician James Reese Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1881 on George Washington’s Birthday. He wouldn’t live to see 40 but in his short life he became one of the most influential American musicians of the twentieth century. The one and only Eubie Blake called him “the Martin Luther King of music.” He’s credited with introducing jazz to Europe. Nothing less than that. Still, most people have never heard of him.

His father was born in 1848 in mobile. His mom was born in Demopolis in 1854. They were children before the Civil War.

Early in his life he learned to play the piano and the violin. When he was 10 his parents moved the family to Washington DC and his dad took a job with the post office.

When James was 23, he moved to New York City and found gigs as a pianist. He was a prolific composer, especially for black theater groups doing musicals. He got one of his songs in 1907’s The Shoo-Fly Regiment by Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole, a duo that ought be to more well known. It was a musical about the Spanish American war which ran all summer—almost as long as the war had back in 1898. The next year he was the Musical Director for Cole and Johnson’s The Red Moon for which he wrote two songs.

In 1910 Europe organized a group he called “The Clef Club” for black musicians in New York. Not only was the club an orchestra and chorus it operated sort of like a musician’s union and booking agent. In May 1912 it played a historic concert of music by black composers at Carnegie Hall. By 1914 he was working with the popular dancing duo Vernon and Irene Castle—a white husband and wife act—for whom he developed two new distinct dances: one called the Turkey trot, and another that became known as the foxtrot.

As a composer, Europe was hard to pin down stylistically. Truth is, his music didn’t fit into any clear existing category in large part because he was creating a new synthesis. We’ve talked about what a sensation the premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was in 1924, but Europe was doing much the same sort thing years earlier. The Library of Congress has said that Europe’s music “was like no other music produced at that time or since.” He combined “complex melodies and arrangements with driving rhythms.” His music turned out to be one of the key bridges from what we know of as ragtime to what we know as jazz.

Let’s talk more about James Europe next week, specifically about what he did during WWI.