Over the years, big band jazz has become synonymous with the 1920’s swing era, but history’s first big bands actually made their debut in the early 1910’s. These early big bands played ragtime and the earliest forms of jazz. Of these bands, none were more influential than those under the direction of James Reese Europe (1881-1919). Dubbed the “Martin Luther King Jr. of American music” by composer Eubie Blake, James Reese Europe’s career broke racial barriers, advancing the rights of black musicians. He led one of the first touring African American orchestras and one of the very first African American orchestras to record for a major company.
On Monday, February 26th at 7:00 pm in the Gem Theater, the American Jazz Museum and its partners present “From ‘Bandana Land’ to ‘No Man’s Land’: James Reese Europe’s Musical Journey.” This program is part of Park University’s 17th Annual Spencer Cave Black History Month Lecture Series. New York University associate professor, Michael Dinwiddie’s lecture will explore James Reese Europe’s impact on jazz in Europe during World War I. The program includes live performances of Europe’s original compositions.
If you can’t get enough of that big band sound, following the program, head to the Blue Room to take in the sights and sounds of the Louis Neal Big Band. This free performance will give you a taste of James Reese Europe’s legacy on the big band style.
James Reese Europe
James Reese Europe’s career started in 1910 when he became the leader of the Clef Club Orchestra. In 1912, the Clef Club was one of the first African American bands to play in Carnegie Hall. This proto-jazz concert was a pivotal moment in African American music history. Every musician in the band was African American, and every piece performed was the work of black composers. Clef Club performed in Carnegie Hall again in 1913 and 1914.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, James Reese Europe enlisted in the U.S. Army, where his musical reputation preceded him. He was asked to assemble the “best damn band in the Army.” The orchestra traveled with the 369th Regiment, known as the Hellfighters, and performed for French, British, and American audiences. These concerts introduced Europeans to ragtime and jazz for the first time. This exposure paved the way for the explosive popularity of le jazz hot in the 1920’s.
James Reese Europe inspired appreciation for African American music and the talents of black musicians. The bands led by James Reese Europe were important predecessors to those of Benny Moten, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jay McShann, and more. His legacy allowed for African American bands to thrive in the decades to come.
Professor Dinwiddie received both his B.A. and M.F.A. from NYU, where he studied Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts. In 1995, he received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Playwriting.
Dinwiddie received a NYU Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005. He currently teaches courses based on his interests in cultural studies, African American theater history, dramatic writing, filmmaking and ragtime music.
In April 2018, Dinwiddie will be inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, which promotes and encourages the highest standards of research, writing and creativity in educational and professional theater.
Louis Neal Big Band
Following the lecture, head across the street to the Blue Room with Louis Neal Big Band and take in the music influenced by James Reese Europe. Formed in the mid-1990’s, Louis Neal Big Band includes some of Kansas City’s finest musicians. Tickets to the performance are free, so be sure to check out this not-to-be-missed show!
The lecture is free and open to the public but we recommend reservations. Visit americanjazzmuseum.org to reserve your seat. For more information on the Louis Neal Big Band performance in the Blue Room, click here. Park University, American Jazz Museum, National Archives at Kansas City, National World War I Museum and Memorial, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Greater Kansas City Black History Study Group present this year’s Spencer Cave Black History Month Lecture.
Photo credit: “James Reese Europe & the Harlem Hellfighters.” Digital Image. National Jazz Museum, Harlem. 2015. Accessed January 23, 2018, http://jazzmuseuminharlem.org/events/james-reese-europe-the-harlem-hellfighters-jazzs-forgotten-heroes/ ; “James Reese Europe and Band,” Digital Image. Encyclopedia of Alabama. October 5, 2009. Accessed January 23, 2018, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2470
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