Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Out in No Man's Land

James Reese Europe & Harlem Hellfighters 369th Regt. band
Who would think that little U.S.A. would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn to learn how to play it?
....I sometimes think if the Kaiser ever heard a good syncopated melody he would not take himself so seriously.[i]
            --Noble Sissle, drum major of the Harlem Hellfighters regimental band 

James Reese Europe (more commonly known as “Jim Europe”) was the first black bandleader to record in the United States and the first to conduct a black orchestra performing ragtime/jazz music on the concert stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall.  He was also the first black American officer to enter the trenches of the First World War, the first to lead troops in combat in the war, and the first black American to be given a public funeral in New York City.  And yet James Reese Europe is virtually unknown today, both for his contributions to music and for his service in the First World War.

In 1916, before the United States entered the war, Jim Europe joined the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, explaining to a friend, “there has never been such an organization of Negro men that will bring together all classes of men for a common good. And our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anywhere else unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community.”[ii]

Europe was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 15th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard in December of 1916, and when the US entered the war, his regiment (later known as the 369th or “Harlem Hellfighters”) was assigned to the 92nd Division, one of only two black military divisions that the segregated U.S. Army allowed to participate in combat.[iii]

He was trained as a machine-gunner, but because Europe was one of the most popular bandleaders in America before the war, he was also charged with forming the best military band in the U.S. Army.[iv] Recruiting musicians from New York, Chicago, and Puerto Rico, he put together a military band that some described as the best in the world.[v] It is estimated that the Harlem Hellfighters regimental band traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for foreign dignitaries and military commanders, wounded soldiers in hospitals, troops on recreational leave, French citizens, and American Army Headquarters in Paris.
Europe is on the right

In between concerts, Lieutenant Europe was assigned to machine gun duty in the trenches on the Western Front. Charles Welton, writing for the New York Age, said that in addition to Europe “sowing jazz selections over the agricultural terrain and bunching bits of it in the cantons en route,” the officer also “did solo work with a machine gun forty times heavier than a trombone, and actually got it working in syncopated time.”[vi]

In the spring of 1918, Europe participated in a French raid on German trenches. He described the night raid to Noble Sissle, his friend and drum major of the Harlem Hellfighters' regimental band.  Europe’s description is rich with the sounds of the war as he remembered the din of artillery shells whirring overhead that sounded “like a thousand pheasants,” the exploding shrapnel “hizzing hither and thither,” the crack of an officer’s pistol firing a red flare from his Very pistol, and “the excited yelling of our men, as they darted first up one trench and down another, bombarding every nook and corner with hand grenades.” Europe told Sissle, “I found everything last night that I ever heard existed out there.”[vii] 

Injured in a gas attack just weeks later, Europe used his time in the hospital to compose music; among the songs he wrote while recuperating was “On Patrol in No Man’s Land.”[viii]  You can listen to the 1919 recording of the song here. 

On Patrol in No Man’s Land

What the time? Nine?
Fall in line
Alright, boys, now take it slow
Are you ready? Steady!
Very good, Eddie.
Over the top, let's go
Quiet, lie it, else you'll start a riot
Keep your proper distance, follow 'long
Cover, brother, and when you see me hover
Obey my orders and you won't go wrong

There's a Minenwerfer*coming --                               mortar shell
look out (bang!)
Hear that roar (bang!), there's one more (bang!)
Stand fast, there's a Very light*                                   flare gun
Don't gasp or they'll find you all right
Don't start to bombing with those hand grenades
There's a machine gun, holy spades!
Alert, gas! Put on your mask
Adjust it correctly and hurry up fast
Drop!
There's a rocket from the Boche* barrage                   derogatory term for Germans
Down, hug the ground,
close as you can, don't stand
Creep and crawl, follow me, that's all

What do you hear? Nothing near
Don't fear, all is clear
That's the life of a stroll
When you take a patrol
Out in No Man's Land
Ain't it grand?
Out in No Man's Land
            --James Reese Europe

The song was recorded on the Pathé label by Jim Europe and members of the 369th Infantry Hellfighters band in March 1919, shortly after they returned from the war.  It’s probable that the composition had been performed in France: with band instruments simulating the sounds of machine gun fire, artillery explosions, and gas raid sirens, the song communicates the danger of battle while assuring its listeners that action on the front lines is a grand adventure not to be missed.

Advertisements for the recording included personal testimonials:
One of the boys in our office went to war.  On his return I asked him what American effort most impressed him and he answered JIM (Lieut.) EUROPE’S BAND.  He said that the French and British bands would play and one would say to himself, “what beautiful music!” But when Europe’s band came along no one, whatever his race, could keep still. There was that pep, that something of life and animation that made everybody want to do something.[ix]

Lt. James R. Europe
Before leaving for the war, John Love, personal secretary to the wealthy Wanamaker family of Philadelphia and a professional acquaintance of Europe, had tried to dissuade him from overseas service. In the summer of 1917, Europe had undergone emergency surgery for health complications related to Grave’s Disease, and Love argued that Europe would be entitled to a medical exemption. Jim Europe replied, “if I could, I would not. My country calls me and I must answer; and if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.”[x]

Tragically, in early May of 1919, just months after the New York City Homecoming Parade, Jim Europe was killed backstage during a concert in Boston by a disgruntled musician who was later declared mentally unfit to stand trial. Notable jazz musician Eubie Blake was Jim Europe’s business partner and friend. Later in life, as he recalled the legacy of James Reese Europe, Blake said, 

People don’t realize yet today what we lost when we lost Jim Europe. He was the savior of Negro musicians. He was in a class with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. I met all three of them. Before Europe, Negro musicians were just like wandering minstrels…. Before Jim, they weren’t even supposed to be human beings.  Jim Europe changed all that.  He made a profession for us out of music. All of that we owe to Jim. If only people would realize it.[xi]





[i] Quoted in Scott's Official History of the American Negro in the World War (1919), by Emmet J. Scott, p. 309.
[ii] Noble Sissle’s Memoirs of Lieutenant ‘Jim’ Europe, quoted in Reid Badger’s excellent biography of James Reese Europe, A Life in Ragtime, 1995, p. 142.
[iii] For more information, see the article “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI” by Jami Bryan.
[iv] Badger, A Life in Ragtime, p. 143.
[v] New York Times, May 12, 1919, cited in Badger, A Life in Ragtime, p. 7.
[vi] Quoted in Scott’s Official History, p. 306.
[vii] Sissle’s Memoirs, cited in Badger’s A Life in Ragtime, pp. 181-182.
[viii] The sheet music credits the song to James Europe, Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake. Blake has said he had no part in writing the music but was credited for the song because “because that’s the kind of partners they were.” Sissle’s memoir on Europe’s life recounts visiting Jim Europe in the hospital and hearing Europe’s greeting: “Gee, I am glad to see you boys! Sissle, here’s a wonderful idea for a song that just came to me, in fact it was [from the] experience that I had last night during the bombardment that nearly knocked me out.” Cited in Badger’s A Life in Ragtime, p. 187.
[ix] Talking Machine World, June 15, 1919.  Cited in Tim Brooks’ Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, p. 285.
[x] From John Love’s letter to Noble Sissle dated 28 January, 1920 and included in Sissle’s Memoirs. Cited in Badger’s A Life in Ragtime, p. 154.
[xi] From Eubie Blake, by Al Rose. Cited in Brooks’ Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, p. 291.

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