James Reese Europe, the Clef Club, and jazz circa the First World War

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

James Reese Europe was born on Feb. 22, 1881, in Mobile, Ala., and was raised in Washington, D.C. During his youth, Europe received musical education, and consequently became an instrumental figure in the evolution of jazz from ragtime. In 1905, he moved to New York, where he began to earn a living playing ragtime piano at nightclubs. In 1910, Europe organized an ensemble of Harlem musicians, which he called the Clef Club. Under Europe’s direction, the Clef Club became a popular fixture on the society dance party scene in New York. By 1914, partly because of partnership with the white dance instruction team of Vernon and Irene Castle, Europe conducted the first all-Black ensemble to present a concert of ragtime music at Carnegie Hall. In the same year, Europe recorded with his ensemble under the name of the “Jim Europe Society Orchestra,” becoming the first Black musician to make commercial recordings.

During the First World War, Europe joined the army and was asked to form a regimental band. The result was an extraordinary orchestra consisting of the best Black players that he could find. Europe’s ensemble was part of the first Black regiments to go to war, becoming known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” His band toured France and became well known for its jazz performances.

Sadly, in 1919, Europe was stabbed to death by one of his own musicians in a nightclub incident. The world of jazz was devastated by his loss. He received what was possibly one of the first public funerals for a Black person in New York, and was mourned by thousands of fans, both Black and white.

Memphis Blues (1919)

The song Memphis Blues was written by W.C. Handy in 1919. According to musicologist Charles Hamm, the song is a stark example of the original style of “blues” before the 1920s and ’30s. As Hamm points out, “most of the blues published and recorded before the 1920s bear little resemblance to the formal and harmonic patterns of traditional vocal blues, and at most, may contain a 12-bar blues phrase or two.”

As Hamm describes: “Europe’s recording begins with a short introduction followed by a twelve-measure blues phrase and then a sixteen-measure section similar to ragtime. The final section consists of another twelve-bar blues played six times, each repetition featuring a different instrument.”

David Schroder elaborates: “[Europe’s band] doesn’t sound like jazz, it sounds like orchestrated ragtime, a lot of unison playing. His music was based on banjos and bandoneons, and in fact in New York at the time in the teens, when you’re competing with other vaudeville acts which were rampant all down 2nd Avenue, you had people like Harry Houdini hanging off skyscrapers in a straitjacket in front of thousands of people, to come see his show. Europe did the same thing. He would have a group of 50 banjo players playing his music all at once, and the spectacle was the number of banjo players.”

While the exact meaning behind the song Memphis Blues is unknown, it is likely that the “bluesy” elements of the recording reflect the overt racism amongst Black soldiers in the First World War. While Europe and his band/regiment enjoyed the pleasure of making music, Black soldiers were often discriminated against, and little value was placed on their lives.


Library of Congress. “James Reese Europe, 1881-1919” https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200038842/

R. Reid Badger. “James Reese Europe and the Prehistory of Jazz.” American Music, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1989) pg. 48-67