Harlem Hellfighter: The Story of James Reese Europe

He was toasted in Paris and honored in a parade on Fifth Avenue. Here, we remember the legacy of a World War I hero, jazz great and Mobile native.

Lt. James Reese Europe, left, arrives in New York with the 369th Infantry, commonly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters, ” following the conclusion of World War I. On that day in 1919, the infantry unit was treated to adoring cheers throughout the streets of Manhattan.

On May 13, 1919, thousands of New Yorkers looked on as a funeral procession wound its way through the streets of Harlem. The deceased, 39-year-old James Reese Europe, was a celebrated composer and bandleader who, had he lived, might well have gone on to join Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as one of the most important jazz innovators of the 20th century. Now the Mobile-born musician was gone, and throngs of people turned out to mourn him at the first public funeral held for an African-American in New York City.

Just three months earlier, Lt. Europe had led a very different procession, as his regiment of African-American National Guardsmen, the 369th Infantry (the “Harlem Hellfighters”), returned in triumph from the Great War. They marched past cheering crowds all the way from the southern tip of Manhattan to Harlem, the city’s largest African-American neighborhood, which was at the time poised on the verge of the cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The 369th had spent more time on the front line and received more commendations than almost any other unit in the American Expeditionary Forces. The regiment also boasted the finest band of any army in World War I and the finest bandleader. Lt. James Reese Europe had not only conducted the band, but also arranged or composed all of the band’s numbers in an infectious style that blended ragtime with a new improvisational type of music rapidly becoming known as “jazz.” New Yorkers, black and white, went wild that day in February of 1919 as Lt. Europe led the Hellfighters Band up Fifth Avenue. It was the musician’s greatest triumph and, sadly, his last.

The son of Henry and Lorraine Europe and the fourth of five children, James Reese Europe was born in Mobile on February 22, 1880. A former slave, Henry Europe worked for the Internal Revenue Service during Reconstruction and supported his family on a middle-class income. While Henry attended Baptist services in Mobile, freeborn Lorraine became one of the first African-American members of the city’s Episcopal congregation. Both were amateur musicians and respected members of Mobile’s African-American community.

- Sponsors -

Beyond these details, little is known of the composer’s early life in the Azalea City, except that he demonstrated innate musical ability at a young age, received lessons on the piano and violin from his parents, and, like the New Orleans-born Louis Armstrong, absorbed the musical traditions of the African-American South, which he would later draw upon in his compositions.

In 1890, Henry Europe accepted a position with the National Postal Service in Washington D.C., and the family relocated to the nation’s capital, where they lived for a time just a few houses down from another great bandleader, John Philip Sousa. After graduating from high school in 1903, James Reese Europe headed to New York, determined to pursue a career in music.  

Lt. Europe leads the 369th Infantry band as it entertains wounded American soldiers at a Paris hospital, 1918. Courtesy Library of Congress

By the time of the First World War, he was already one of the most important cultural figures in Harlem, and his reputation went well beyond African-American circles. Europe led a well-received concert titled “A Symphony of Negro Music” for a high-society audience at Carnegie Hall. Defying the color line, he served as the musical director for the British dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle, who would pave the way for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Following the American Declaration of War, issued on April 6, 1917, Europe agreed to serve as the regimental band leader in the 15th “Colored” New York Infantry (subsequently renamed the 369th Infantry). He did so grudgingly: Europe wanted to fight, not perform music. But once convinced that he could best help his country by serving as its musical ambassador, he recruited Harlem’s finest musicians, as well as a number of extraordinary Puerto Rican players, into a band that would soon take France by storm. As it turned out, he would still see plenty of combat. When not conducting concerts, Lt. Europe led a machine gun company on the treacherous Western Front.

But first, Lt. Europe and his comrades had to deal with the racial policies of the U.S. War Department, which forced black soldiers to serve in segregated units as laborers, not combatants. After their arrival in France, the Hellfighters worked as stevedores, performing manual labor loading and unloading cargo from ships. Then, General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, agreed to loan the black New Yorkers to the French military, which was facing a series of German offensives that threatened to end the war before the United States could fully mobilize. Outfitted with French helmets and rifles and attached to an army commanded by the fierce, one-armed French General Henri Gouraud, the men of the 369th went on to fight with distinction in battle after battle. The regiment was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1918.  

A New York crowd eagerly awaits the passing of the famous 369th Infantry.

As a gesture of goodwill, the regimental band performed wherever it went, providing entertainment for French townspeople or soldiers at base camps and hospitals. Ultimately, it played in Paris, holding concerts at the Tuileries Garden and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. For the French, it was love at first listen. No one could get enough of Lt. Europe’s compositions or the signature sound of his hand-picked ensemble, which featured a beefed-up rhythm section unlike anything else at the time. It was at this moment in 1918 that the enduring French love affair with American jazz was born.

Thanks to a series of recordings made shortly before Lt. Europe’s death, we can hear this music as it sounded at the time. Some of it falls into the American blues tradition, but with a difference. For example, in the Hellfighters’ rendition of “St. Louis Blues, ” a clarinetist suddenly breaks from the melody and launches into a frenetic improvisation, one of the first jazz solos ever recorded. Other songs speak directly to Lt. Europe’s combat experience. In “On Patrol in No-Man’s Land, ” vocalist Noble Sissle, who also served in the 369th, describes the dangers of the front line while the band’s percussionists imitate the sounds of machine gun fire and exploding artillery shells.

It was one of those percussionists who, in a moment of perhaps shell-shock-induced rage, stabbed Lt. Europe in the neck with a penknife during a heated conversation on May 9, 1919. Though the wound seemed superficial, doctors couldn’t stop the bleeding, and the bandleader died hours later. Europe left behind a wife, Willie Angrom Starke; a son, James Reese Europe Jr.; and a host of what-ifs. Where would he have taken his music next?  Would his achievements have rivaled that of other jazz greats such as Armstrong and Ellington?

Just three months after the bandleader’s triumphant return from World War I, Lt. James Reese Europe’s funeral procession wound through the streets of Harlem on May 13, 1919.

What this composer and bandleader did achieve, both at home and in France, is impressive enough, a source of pride for New Yorkers and Mobilians alike. His legacy lives on even today. In 2003, Lt. Europe was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

Two different graphic novels about the Hellfighters have brought Lt. Europe and the 369th to the attention of a new generation of readers. And thanks to a grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation, 75 music students from historically black colleges and universities have been selected for a program known as the 369th Experience. These students will learn Lt. Europe’s music and, during the months leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, retrace the 369th Infantry’s steps, performing in both Paris and New York. A century after its remarkable journey through the Great War, Lt. James Reese Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters Band will play once again.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!