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JAMES REESE EUROPE

PIONEERING BANDLEADER FETED AT TRIBECA

in a  two-parter the pioneering bandleader JAMES REESE EUROPE was celebrated at the Tribeca Arts Center at Borough of Manhattan Community College in Feb. part one presented by historian/author Krin Gabbard was a panel. some survivors of Europe’s family were in the audience and from the look of them there will be more. there was a brief film excerpt from Ken Burns’ Jazz. other than that Europe remains a shadowy figure murdered too early for him to have made a further impact, other than being the first black troop leader in WWI, and a bandleader there as well. not an inconsiderable feat in 1918.

on another night RANDY WESTON’s African Rhythms Orchestra dedicated a concert to Europe also at Tribeca/BMCC. Weston’s patter on Europe did not enlighten us much on the man but some of the selections performed expanded our knowledge of the music he played.

WHO WAS JAMES REESE EUROPE? 

the fact that he existed and prospered at all was amazing. the music was ragtime and Europe composed, arranged and played it on the African American music scene in NYC in the 1910s. he organized the Clef Club, an African American Music society and in 1912 his band made history when they played Carnegie Hall 26 years prior to Benny Goodman, and John Hammond’s From Spirituals To Swing concerts there, and more than three decades before Duke Ellington’s series began in 1943. Europe’s was a benefit for the Colored Music Settlement School.

EUROPE IN EUROPE

the following year Europe recorded some of the best examples of pre-jazz extant. while a senseless war –is any otherwise?– was killing young people in the mud in France in 1918 Lt. James Reese Europe organized the first and only African American fighting and playing unit. his band not only took up arms but spread jazz throughout the Continent for the first time.

Europe led the 369th Infantry regiment, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” so-called because they rose from the trenches with such suddenness firing as they went. the Hellfighters did not lose a man neither in battle nor to the influenza pandemic. they travelled over 2000 miles in France performing for the British, French and American military as well as for French civilian audiences.

he was killed by a band member after the war.

RANDY WESTON’S DEDICATORY CONCERT

any reason to hear Weston’s African Rhythms Orchestra is a good one, but especially fine when the septet drives with purpose. this night they mixed their signature tunes such as The African Family, African Village Bedford Stuyvesant with W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues, Weston’s Mobile Blues, Waltz for James Reese Europe and Hellfighters Blues. A Night In Mbari rounded out the evening with the added pleasure of an encore, African Sunrise.

the band? what more can be written? these guys come to play! they infuse Weston’s music with his imprimatur; it’s almost sacred. Alex Blake’s bass strumming vibrates you; Neil Clarke’s hand percussiveness pounds at your heart; T.K. Blue’s plaintive saxophone reaches your soul; the brass section, Robert Trowers, trombone and Howard Johnson, tuba adds color.

aboard for the ragtime feeling was banjoist Ayodele Ankhtawi Maakheru, but not playing the instrument a la New Orleans. his approach is more along the lines of the African multi-stringed kora thereby making it truly African-American. and tying in the African Rhythms Orchestra with James Reese Europe’s musical attack.

- © arnold jay smith

March 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 


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