Date of this Version
Issued April 2, 2018
This essay sketches the story of the bands and bandmasters of the twenty seven new black army regiments which served in the U.S. Army in World War I. The new bands underwent rapid mobilization and demobilization with their regiments over 1917-1919. They were for the most part unconnected by personnel or traditions to the long-established bands of the four black regular U.S. Army regiments that preceded them and that continued to serve outside Europe during and after the Great War. Pressed to find sufficient numbers of willing and able black band leaders for these new regiments, the Army turned to schools and the entertainment industry for the necessary talent. The newly formed bands entertained servicemen and civilians in Europe and America not only with traditional military marches and concert band fare, but also with minstrel shows and revues, and with the latest flavor of ragtime music, which they called jazz. The most important aspect of this story is that it provides a context---including colleagues and competitors---for the wartime and immediate post-war accomplishments of James Reese (Jim) Europe. The story of how Jim Europe and the “Harlem Hell Fighters Band" introduced jazz to Europeans during World War I is one of the most famous set pieces in American music history, and his murder shortly after their return to the states is one of its great tragedies. There is no denying his fame and accomplishments, but Lieutenant Europe was not an isolated figure. Rather, he was first among equals. He was one of a number of freshly minted black U.S. Army band leaders, some of whom who also had been famous civilian musicians in their own right, who brought large and small ensemble jazz to England and France in 1918-1919. A small number of these new black bands, after the Armistice, toured the States to capitalize swiftly on their moment of fame and the surging popularity of the new jazz music.