“No inconsiderable part of our success was due to his wonderful playing…”
— Irene Castle
James Reese Europe (1880-1919) can be thought of as the W.E.B. DuBois of American music, not just an accomplished musician, but a relentless teacher, theorist and advocate for the cause of widespread acceptance of African Americans as the equals of whites in the field of serious music. Europe had studied music as a youngster in Washington, D.C., moved to New York, and quickly made a name for himself organizing bands for society parties, which is where he met Vernon and Irene Castle, who hired him to be their musical director.
Not surprisingly, the Europe Orchestra and their alumni were among the first African Americans to tread the vaudeville stage without the mask of burnt cork. Dressed in evening clothes, this crack ensemble of highly trained musicians infused their music with elements of ragtime and what was then coming to be known as jazz. Two of its more sophisticated alumni, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (author of “I’m Just Wild About Harry”) would form their own team called the “Dixie Duo” and become Palace headliners themselves, in addition to creating the seminal Broadway show Shuffle Along. Others he collaborated with included Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson, Will Marion Cook and Ernest Hogan.
When the U.S. entered the World War in 1918, Europe further distinguished himself by organizing an all-black regimental band. This patriotic group bravely entertained doughboys throughout the theatre of war until the armistice, at which point they returned home for a triumphant U.S. tour. It was on the last performance of that tour in 1919 that one of his own musicians, over some perceived slight, stabbed Europe to death.
If you’re interested in hearing Europe’s music I highly recommend The Product of Our Souls: The Sound and sway of James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra by Archeophone Records.
And to find out more about the history of vaudeville, including seminal bandleaders like James Reese Europe, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.