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.