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David and Art - The Music Man at War

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

100 years ago, it was an American Army band that brought an artistic revolution to Paris.

In 1916, as part of President Woodrow Wilson’s preparedness movement during the ongoing war in Europe, the New York National Guard formed its first all-black regiment. Recruiting, however, was slow. In September, largely because he thought it was the kind of thing that could build a greater sense of community in Harlem, and knowing he himself was a prominent public figure, band leader James Reese Europe enlisted. It helped a little, but not much.

Desperate for a boost, the regiment’s colonel thought that being known as having the best regimental band in the entire army might help. Certainly, it would be something to talk about. He asked Lieutenant Europe to form it. He was hesitant but agreed to do it under certain conditions. He wanted the band to be much bigger than a standard US Army regimental band, and he wanted to be able to recruit good players. (Europe was thinking that if this thing were a success, it would be a big publicity boost for the national black orchestra he wanted to put together after the war ended.)

In June 1917 the band gave its first public performance in New York City. After basic training and a transatlantic crossing, a crowd of French soldiers and sailors cheered the regiment with its band as it stepped ashore in France on January 1, 1918. Soon the regiment would be renumbered the 369th and become famous as “The Harlem Hellfighters.”

When you listen to their recordings, you hear music being performed by a military band—that is, primarily horns and woodwinds. Think John Philips Sousa, but then stop right there. That’s the instrumentation. But how they’re playing is very different from anything that was heard under Sousa’s baton. There’s lots of syncopation and slippery playing. There are elements you think of as ragtime, but there’s enough extra going on to make you feel like this is music trying to work its way out of something and into something different. If you listen to it now, it doesn’t sound radical at all. But then, it did.

When the band first played the French National Anthem, it took several bars before French audiences even recognized it, so loose was its style. One French bandleader couldn’t believe that Europe’s players weren’t using special or modified instruments until Europe had his players demonstrate.

People couldn’t get enough. In just February and March of 1918, the band traveled over 2,000 miles in France playing concerts for soldiers and civilians alike. They did long stints at American R&R camps for soldiers getting a break from the trenches. They played at hospitals and in countless towns and villages. They played in Paris where they also made their first recordings. Through all this, against the backdrop of the World War I, James Reese Europe and his band were introducing to France what would soon be known as jazz.