A piece of sheet music featuring James Reese “Jim” Europe has been listed on EBay with bids starting at $3,999.99.
James Reese Europe
I think my favorite period is 1900-15. Not that I’d want to live back then, I’m not mad, but I do love the fashions, the architecture, the music. My iPod is overflowing with ragtime, pop and Broadway tunes of the pre-War years, and my favorite band by far is James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra. I learned a lot about Europe while writing my biography of Vernon and Irene Castle (oh, you didn’t think I was going to miss a chance to plug one of my books, did you? Not bloody likely!).
Europe was born in Alabama in 1880 (some sources say 1881)—his father was a former slave who went on to study law at Howard University. The Europes were a highly educated and ambitious family, and musical as well, so perhaps James’ career turn did not overly dismay them. He directed several all-black musicals, then turned to composing and conducting, and in 1910 founded the Clef Club, a booking agency, union and social club for black performers.
Tall, imposing and with a no-nonsense demeanor, Europe led the Clef Club Orchestra in “A Symphony of Negro Music” at Carnegie Hall in 1913; that same year, his Europe’s Society Orchestra (which included Ford Dabney and Noble Sissle) signed with Victor Records, becoming (perhaps—I hedge my bets!) the first black orchestra to sign a US recording contract. In 1913 and ’14, he made the recordings I love the best: wild, engaging ragtime numbers such as “Too Much Mustard,” “Castle House Rag,” “Castle Walk,” “You’re Here and I’m Here,” “Down Home Rag,” “The Lame Duck Waltz” and “Il Irresistible,” a ragtime tango. More than any other band I have heard, Europe’s blends ragtime, Eastern-European klezmer music, South American rhythm—and it’s danceable and fun.
About the Castles: dance stars Vernon and Irene signed Europe to accompany them on their 1914 nationwide tour: Vernon called Europe’s “The best dancing music in the world,” and Europe lauded Vernon as “one white absolutely without prejudice.” He snuck the Castles into some of the blacks-only clubs just beginning to open in Harlem, and during the tour, Vernon fined a cast member $50 for using the word “nigger” backstage in conversation—$50, in 1914! To avoid the problem of segregated hotels, the Castle Company simply lived in their luxurious train; when possible, Europe’s band performed onstage with the dancers, though some theaters (oh, you know who I’m talking about) made the black players sit in the orchestra pit, safely away from the whites.
Irene may not have been as happy about the association was Vernon, for one reason: drummer Buddie (also spelled “Buddy” sometimes) Gilmore, who got Vernon obsessed with drums. Vernon became a good, enthusiastic player, but Irene complained that “Drumming is all very well in a restaurant . . . but in a house, beginning almost before breakfast and ending some time after midnight, it becomes a little trying.”
Both Vernon Castle and James Reese Europe enlisted when the Great War broke out: Europe joined New York’s 15th Infantry Regiment, the first black regiment to reach France. He was supposed to be a military bandleader, but soon saw combat: his biographer, Reid Badger, wrote that Lt. Europe was the first black officer “to lead troops into combat in the Great War.” His 369th Infantry Regiment was nicknamed the Hell Fighters for their fearlessness; they served 191 days in combat, and when on leave entertained Paris with their wild American music.
The Hell Fighters returned to a heroic welcome in New York, marching up Fifth Avenue from midtown to Harlem (Irene Castle cheered them on, but by then, poor Vernon had died in a plane crash). In the spring of 1919, The Hell Fighters Band made a series of records for Pathé which are today available on CD—terrific music, on the cusp between ragtime and jazz (indeed, “Jazz Baby” and “Jazzola” are two of the selections—along with the best “St. Louis Blues” you will ever hear). Europe was set to become one of the leading stars of the dawning jazz age, when the unthinkable happened: on May 9, 1919, after a performance at Boston’s Mechanics Hall, drummer Herbert Wright got into a dressing-room argument with Europe and stabbed him in the throat—Europe died hours later, at the age of 39, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was all but forgotten during the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz revolution that followed, and still today does not get the acclaim he should.
You can easily find Europe’s 1919 work, but I am going to leave you with his earlier music, which I prefer, and I defy you not to jump up and dance around your apartment to “Too Much Mustard” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTmxbfhnLhw) and “The Castle House Rag” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRQ5CU3l8tQ). And just for the heck of it, here is some rare footage of Vernon and Irene Castle actually dancing to Europe’s music, from their 1914 film The Whirl of Life (which I wish would be restored and issued on DVD, with a Europe soundtrack!). Turn off the sound, which is totally incorrect for the period, and play some Europe’s Society Orchestra in the background: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5TE74e9vAg. Europe’s Orchestra can barely be spotted to the far right of the large-ballroom set (you can click off at 3:48, when we shift to 1939 and Astaire/Rogers, if you don’t want to lose that 1914 feeling).