The Legacy of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters
Born in Mobile, Alabama 15 years after Appomattox, composer/conductor James Reese Europe took idiomatically pure African-American music to Carnegie Hall and inspired a generation’s worth of artists to challenge any and all racial barriers in their way. In 1918, he gave up an ever-burgeoning career to lead what became known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He died the following year, stabbed by an unstable band member after a concert in Boston. Dr. Martin Luther King’s lasting legacy has inspired generations of civil rights activists, and uplifted the nation and the world with his messages of peace.
Both men will be recognized in two special programs this January at Stanford Live—James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin and a screening of Selma with live score—featuring acclaimed pianist and 2010 MacArthur fellow Jason Moran. As a jazz musician, he has expanded the boundaries that defined the idiom he inherited, stretching not only his music but his modes expression to face a rapidly changing world.
Moran shares his thoughts on both works with Loren Schoenberg, Senior Scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Martin Luther King’s legacy is as celebrated as Europe’s remains obscure. To place him in chronological context, Europe had been gone for just under a decade when King was born in Atlanta, Georgia. He died at the same age as Europe, 39.
They are both such rare citizens of our country that I’m kind of overwhelmed at having to play both of these programs right near each other because they represent a kind of citizen that rarely gets the amplitude that they both had.
Do you think it is fair to say that Duke Ellington was the second James Reese Europe?
Yes. Definitely. That’s clear. You can’t get to Ellington without James. And I’ve been trying to dub him the “big bang of jazz.” There’s something that happens with that scale of musicians that he’s using, and also the change of technique that they’re playing with—all that kind of coming together launches the country into another mode.
King’s life has been analyzed and researched for 60 years. There are few books on Europe alone. Were there sources you discovered as you dug into Europe’s life that made a large impression on you?
Noble Sissle, another major figure whose legacy remains obscure, wrote an unpublished book about James Reese Europe that’s on the Library of Congress website. He put down every feeling that he had about working with James Reese Europe. In it, you hear this awe that he has for his teacher, his mentor, the person he was on the lines with, marching with, playing with.
Jason Moran's upcoming performance is a meditation on the life and music of jazz composer James Reese Europe.
One of the most remarkable scenes in your Europe piece takes place in the bottom of a ship crossing the Atlantic. How did that evolve?
It came from Noble Sissle’s book. He was in the thick of everything when they [the Harlem Hellfighters] made that first trip back across the Atlantic. And I’m studying that trip back across the Atlantic in an ancestral way. They were brought here in slave ships, and now generations later, here they go, back across the Atlantic, to fight for this country that essentially enslaves them. Sissle talks about the musicians who had to be quiet. They were at the bottom of the boat, and they’d be playing the song really softly, “Steal Away.” There’s something powerful about painting a picture of a ship at night, going to battle, bringing the fighters but also bringing the music.
Your large-scale tributes transcend musical genres, and use multi-media effects so originally and memorably, that they seem to go way beyond what a film or theater piece could.
Which is part of why doing this piece is my kind of go at it. The way we attack it is very abstract. I attack the legacy of James Reese Europe through a missing marker. There aren’t enough markers. The Arlington Cemetery is the marker we have for him. We have the marker uptown in Harlem for the 369th. But there’s not enough. The film that’s part of our show has this totally black square that is just sitting there, sometimes in the middle of a street or in the middle of a park, that you have to start to imagine, “Well, whose story goes on there?”
James Reese Europe directed the Harlem Hellfighters, the WWI ragtime band of the 369th Regiment.
Were there similar challenges in adapting the music from such disparate eras as Europe’s and King’s for these two very different projects?
James Reese Europe’s music signals every kind of Great Black Music that occurs after it, from the early 1900s on. Whether it’s R&B, whether it’s hip-hop, whether it’s rock-and-roll, whether it’s some free stuff. That music is easy to open up in that way, because it’s something that I’ve learned how to do. My first favorite pianist is Thelonious Monk, and he did that with everybody’s music. So it feels like the duty of the artist playing someone else’s song to also find your way into the song, to find the story that you want to tell in the song.
For Selma, since it’s a film score, it’s a very different task than to play a concert. We know how the story ends before we walk into the theater. But we aren’t sure how we’ll feel as it evolves on the screen. A lot of the way the music works in the film is really just as support, and I think of it as emotional support for the audience. None of the issues that are in the film are ever resolved. They aren’t resolved today.
The revolution sometimes comes from a very humble space, but the ideas and figures are large, whether it’s James Reese Europe—who grew up in Alabama and D.C., then moved to New York in search of his dream as a violinist and later formed this union and went off to war—or MLK, whose parents raised him in a way to put him on the path to make the kind of change he envisioned.
Now we live in a contemporary society where I can’t imagine where we’d be without figures like them. Maybe somebody else would have stepped in and done something different. But it’s because of the kind of bravery that happens on those bandstands, that are on view, and on these streets, fighting for people, that Europe and King go together.
James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin
Jason Moran & The Harlem Hellfighters
Wed, Jan 22
Bing Concert Hall
Movie with Live Orchestra
Sat, Jan 25