Past Event

James Reese Europe & the Harlem Hellfighters – Jazz’s Forgotten Heroes

Host: Bobby Sanabria

James Reese Europe is one of the most vital of all figures in the first two decades of 20th-century music. By founding the Clef Club and its 125-man orchestra, he pioneered the organization of African-American musicians, finding work and social opportunities for them in the era’s highly segregated music world. In the 1910s, Europe was the musical director for pioneering ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, who introduced the foxtrot and–with Europe, who started the tango craze in 1912–helped popularize ballroom dances based on ragtime, Latin and jazz rhythms. In 1913, Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra became the first all-black group to make recordings, and from Europe’s accounts of his music, it is clear that his group stood on the threshold of jazz.

Europe also conducted the first all-black orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra included violinist/composer Will Marion Cook, the first African-American to launch full-scale musical productions, and who later tutored Duke Ellington. For these concerts, Europe insisted on playing only music by black composers, presaging elements of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin’s historic Aeolian Hall concert, by almost a decade. In World War I, Europe also led the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters Regimental Band, which featured 18 Puerto Rican musicians, and were the first to introduce an early form of jazz to European audiences. Come learn about this long-forgotten figure and his importance to jazz and Harlem history with multi-Grammy nominated musician and educator Bobby Sanabria.