Friday, May 9, 2014

Lt. James Reese Europe: His Life and Death

Today is the anniversary of the death of the great American ragtime orchestra leader James Reese Europe who was murdered in Boston, Massachusetts on May 9, 1919.
James Reese Europe was born on February 22, 1880 in Mobile, Alabama. Sometime after his birth, his father moved the family to Washington, D. C. It was while living there that James excelled in the study of the violin under the tutelage of an assistant conductor of the U. S. Marine Band.
In 1899, Europe's father died unexpectedly and shortly thereafter John Europe, James' older brother, moved to New York City to find work as a pianist. By 1904, James had made the move to New York himself, where he continued studying music. He also briefly conducted the orchestra of the musical comedy A Trip to Africa
By 1905, Europe would become a member of the theatrical production Ernest Hogan's Memphis Students and then would become a conductor for the musical comedy The Shoo-Fly Regiment. His success as a composer and a conductor for black musical productions, such as The Black Politician in 1906 and The Red Moon in 1908 ended in 1910 when the public lost interest in these type of shows.
Europe was one of the people who started a black musicians guild in New York called the Clef Club and served as its first president in 1910. A one hundred piece symphony orchestra made up of members of the Clef Club was established. The orchestra performed around New York and played Carnegie Hall on May 2, 1912.
Vernon & Irene Castle

The popular ballroom dance duo of Vernon & Irene Castle hired Europe as their musical director in 1913. This association helped to popularize Europe and his Orchestra. In December of 1913 Europe began cutting record sides for Victor culminating in a total of eight sides by May of 1914. Europe's association with the Castles would abruptly end when Vernon signed up with the British Air Service in 1915 to fight in World War I.
The 15th National Guard Regiment an all black regiment was formed in Harlem in 1916 in preparation for the United States' possible entry into the war. Europe was made a Lieutenant and was put in charge of organizing a regimental band.

 James R. Europe's Victor Band Sept. 25, 1914.
With the United States Entry into the war the 15th was sent to France. Europe and his regimental band arriving their on January 1, 1918. Once in France however the prejudices of the time would not allow the members of the 15th to see combat. They were instead utilized as laborers working on construction. Eventually they were allowed to see combat and sent to the front, but only as an attachment of the French army under the new designation - the 369th Regiment also known as "the Hell Fighters." This regiment would distinguish itself in battle with newspaper stories telling of their exploits. Lt. Europe was the first black officer to lead troops into battle. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star.
Taken February 12, 1919.
After the Armistice the 369th returned to New York arriving in February 1919. Europe's band received many offers to perform and after the unit was officially mustered out it recorded thirty sides for the Pathé company in March.
Europe's 369th Band made their States-side debut at the Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House before three thousand spectators. For ten weeks the band traveled the country performing at sellout engagements. The end of the tour brought them to Boston.
On May 9, 1919 they were originally supposed to have appeared at the Boston Opera House, but due to a problem they were rescheduled in Mechanic's Hall, which was more often used as a boxing arena than as a band stand. 
Noble Sissle
Things began to go wrong during their first show. Herbert Wright, a drummer, left the stage during a performance and began arguing with Noble Sissle, the band's singer. Wright who served with the regiment in France, had psychological problems with severe mood swings. Whenever he'd suffer from one of these emotional upsets Europe or Sissle could usually get him under control.
At the Intermission, Europe and Sissle tried to placate Wright and get him back onstage meeting with him in the dressing room. This time Wright could not be assuaged. He pulled a knife and shouted, "I'll kill anybody that takes advantage of me! Jim Europe, I'll kill you!"
Europe picked up a chair to protect himself against Wright who had backed Europe up against a wall. Members of the band yelled for Europe to knock the knife out of Wright's hand. Noble Sissle would later describe the events stating that, "Jim grasped the chair in an attitude as though he was about to carry out our warning, when all of sudden there came over him some thought, God knows what, that caused him to completely relax, his whole body and set the chair down and was about to mutter 'Herbert get out of here!' when to our amazement, before any of us could move from our track, like a panther Herbert Wright hurled himself over the chair.
As he came through the air, Jim clasped his body and whirled it away from him, but as the demon had made up his mind to carry out his murderous attack with a back-handed blow. He made a wild swing of his knife, brought it down in the direction of Jim Europe’s face."
When Europe's collar was loosened blood was spurting from a cut in his carotid artery. Sissle wrapped a cloth around Europe's neck and he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Herbert Wright was arrested. No one expected Europe to die and the performance continued. When word came back that James Reese Europe had died his band members were stunned.
Europe's funeral procession, May 13, 1919.
Herbert Wright was indicted for first degree murder, the day before Europe was to be laid to rest. Wright claimed he acted in self-defense. Medical experts declared Wright to be, “of such low type mentality that there was a question as to his entire responsibility.” Wright was sentenced to ten years after pleading guilty to manslaughter. He served his time in the Massachusetts State Penitentiary and was paroled on April 1, 1927.

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down? recorded in 1919.

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