Thursday, August 18, 2011

James Reese Europe and His Military Jazz Band

On August 18th, 1918, Lieutenant James Reese Europe's jazz band of the 369th Infantry Regiment – the Harlem Hellfighters – performed at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées during the Mass Meeting of Allied Women War Workers. The 369th was famous for having introduced jazz to French shores during the Great War, but few people know the story behind its formation.

In Harlem, a white colonel from the Nebraska National Guard named William Hayward was charged with organizing an infantry unit that would be named the 15th Heavy Foot Infantry Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard. (He succeeded in his task despite fierce opposition within the military regarding arming and training black men as soldiers.) As enlistment was slow, Hayward had the idea to increase interest in his regiment by organizing a band. He turned to Europe, who by that time was scheduled to be commissioned as a first lieutenant, and told him “to organize for me the best damn band in the United States Army.”

Lieutenant James Reese Europe
Photo from

Because Hayward wanted his band to exceed the reputation of the black military band from the Illinois National Guard, he side-stepped regulations and “rearranged” assignments for musically talented enlistees so that they could join Europe’s band. He also solicited private donations, including one from John D. Rockefeller, Jr, for the purchase of instruments. In the end, Europe’s band grew from the regulation size of twenty-eight to sixty-five musicians!

Noble Sissle was one of the musicians whom Hayward arranged to have transferred to the New York band. Sissle conducted an advertising campaign via national black newspapers to recruit musicians to the band, inviting those interested to call or wire Europe personally to apply for remaining vacancies. Europe contributed to the recruitment effort by traveling to San Juan, Puerto Rico to recruit musicians. He returned with thirteen young men who spoke almost no English.

Among those embarking for France with the band were drummer Buddy Gilmore, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Frank De Bronte, and Ward “Trombone” Andrews. They sailed on the SS Pocahontas and reached the coastal town of Brest on December 27, 1917. They left the ship to walk on French soil for the first time on January 1, 1918.

369th Regiment Jazz Band
Photo from

The regiment was nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” in New York, and took this name abroad. Europe’s musicians served as General John Pershing’s “personal band” for over a year, as the general wanted to have only the best entertainment for the officers in the French and British armies that visited his headquarters. Pershing also issued the orders that would prevent Europe’s band and other black soldiers from engaging the German (white) enemy in combat while under U.S. command. The 15th Infantry and other black regiments were henceforth attached to French units. The 15th Infantry was attached to the 16th Division of the French Army, and it is this division that gave the soldiers the name “369th Infantry of the U.S.”

Until the 15th Infantry was called up for military action in March, the band toured France extensively under Pershing’s orders. It visited twenty-five cities and towns over a six-week period. This is how jazz became known and loved throughout the country.


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