James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin
Program Notes by Jason Moran
Jason Moran wrote the program notes for his sold-out concert at Buckley Recital Hall, a tribute to James Reese Europe (1881–1919), a seminal African American jazz musician and composer.
There is a great beauty in the life of Lieutenant James Reese Europe. Within the scholarship of who he was and what his music is, it becomes clear that the history surrounding him is a complex and tightly woven knot. Each strand of the cord holds a uniquely American history, a history that also births another complex knot, JAZZ.
Europe becomes a freedom fighter. He learns aspects of this at an early age as his violin teacher is the son of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. An early lesson he understands is that sound and freedom aid one another. With his violin, he arrives in New York on a mission. Much of his mission revolves around music, but his greater mission will be that of demanding equality of African-American performers, PEOPLE. He finds fame by producing music for many societies: dances, parties, ceremonies, concerts. In 1910 he formed the groundbreaking Clef Club, a union for African-American musicians. His 1911 standing-room-only Carnegie Hall premiere of the Clef Club Orchestra was a sensation. His work developing dance music with the famous dancing duo, Vernon and Irene Castle, innovated the fox trot tempos and other dance steps. With each of these developments, Europe always found a larger stage. The “stage” will always be a portal for a place to test what is real and surreal.
In WWI he found his largest and most dangerous stage. When he joined New York’s 15th Regiment, later becoming the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters, he knew African-American soldiers could not fight alongside white soldiers. His writing partner Noble Sissle was shocked Europe signed up. Sissle asked Europe if he could get out of the war, would he? Europe replied, “If I could, I would not. My country called me and I must answer. And if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.”
He indeed startled the world. 100 years later, we celebrate a brave individual among a company of soldiers. The Harlem Hellfighters, who predict a thought Martin Luther King Jr. would write some 47 years later in his letter from a Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Here We Are.
“President’s Colloquium on Race and Racism: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin”—a pre-concert conversation with Jason Moran (center), moderated by Jason Robinson, associate professor of music (left), and Khary Polk, associate professor of Black studies and sexuality, women’s and gender studies (right)
James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin, featuring Jason Moran (piano); Darryl Harper ’90, the John William Ward Professor of Music (clarinet); Brian Settles (tenor saxophone); Logan Richardson (alto saxophone); David Adewumi (trumpet); Chris Bates (trombone); Reginald Cyntje (trombone); Jose Davila (tuba); Tarus Mateen (bass); and Nasheet Waits (drums)