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World War I: American Jazz Delights the World

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This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

James Reese Europe’s band plays jazz tunes in the courtyard of a Paris hospital that is treating wounded American soldiers.

In the afterglow of the armistice in 1918 that ended World War I, Europe, and particularly the city of Paris, exhibited a wild exuberance. In mid-January 1919, future civil rights pioneer and American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) officer Charles Hamilton Houston encapsulated the mood and sounds of European joy: “Paris is taken away with [jazz] and our style of dancing,” he wrote in his diary. “The girls come after the boys in taxis and beg them to go to the dance. Colored boys are all the go.”

World War I brought many changes to the world, jazz not least among them. Some historians characterize it as America’s greatest cultural gift to the globe. It emerged not only as the favored soundtrack of the war, but also as a burgeoning cultural force for nascent, albeit halting and incomplete, integration.

The Library of Congress exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I demonstrates how African-American regimental outfits—such as E. E. Thompson’s 368th Regimental Band; George Dulf’s 370th Infantry “Old Eighth Illinois” Regiment Band; and, most famously, James Reese Europe’s 369th Regimental Band—came to define and spread the new musical form across continental Europe.

Europe’s band consisted of African-American jazz musicians such as Noble Sissle, but also over a dozen Puerto Rican players recruited by Europe himself from the Caribbean island. Some of its earliest performances overseas occurred at the health resort Aix-les-Bains. A world-famous destination frequented by the likes of J.P. Morgan, during the war it served as a site for recovering Allied soldiers, replete with hot springs, ancient Roman ruins and French and Italian architecture. Here Europe’s band regaled recovering troops with jazz compositions.

“From the very first afternoon concert, when they opened with ‘Over There’ and the war-weary American soldiers responded by climbing on tables, shouting, waving their caps, and demanding that it be played again and again, the band was a great hit,” writes historian Reid Badger in his biography of Europe.

Sheet music for “All of No Man’s Land is Ours,” by James Reese Europe, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.

The band made waves with French citizens, too. On its way to Aix-les-Bains, it entertained a local town. The bandmaster’s baton “came down with a swoop that brought forth a soul-rousing crash,” recounted band member Noble Sissle. “[T]hen, it seemed, the whole audience began to sway. . . . The audience could stand it no longer; the ‘jazz germ’ hit them, and it seemed to find the vital spot, loosening all muscles.”

This scene played out across France, pulling in European and American audiences alike. Troop trains “carrying Allied soldiers from everywhere,” passing the 369th, took in the sounds as “every head came out the window when we struck up a good old Dixie tune,” remembered Sissle. Even German prisoners forgot their incarceration, abandoned their labor and began to “pat their feet to the stirring American tune.” Jazz bands like the 369th played at hospitals, rest camps and numerous other venues.

An August 1918 performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris by the 369th so impressed AEF General Tasker Bliss and his French counterparts that they asked the band to play in the French capital for eight more weeks. Another concert featuring the 369th at the Tuileries Gardens, along with some of the great bands from around Europe, drew 50,000 listeners. “Everywhere we gave a concert it was a riot,” Europe told an interviewer in 1919.

The magic of jazz played in France moved even the American segregationist Irvin S. Cobb. A southern humorist and Saturday Evening Post columnist, Cobb had made a name for himself with the American public in part from his frequent ridicule of black speech and people. He traveled to France with two other journalists to document the service of black troops in the French army—due to the U.S. military’s aversion to integration, and the Allies’ need for troops, Europe and others in the 369th were assigned to the French military. (They were the first African-American troops to encounter German troops in battle.)

Europe’s band knew of Cobb; many members disdained him, yet they understood the importance of a performing for the then-influential writer. “A full moon shone across the shell battered houses of the little town silhouetting the demolished steeples of a church nearby” as the sounds of artillery and machine gun fire echoed in the background, notes the historian Reid Badger of the 1918 performance.

Neither the scene nor the music was lost on Cobb, who wrote in the August 1918 edition of the Saturday Evening Post: “If I live to be 101, I shall never forget the second night which was a night of a splendid, flawless full moon. . . . [W]hen the band got to ‘Way Down Upon the Suwannee River’ I wanted to cry.” The villagers also responded with tears; one “heavily whiskered peasant,” noted Cobb, “threw his arms” around one of the band members, “kissing him.”

Tragically, Europe died not long afterward, following an attack in Boston in 1919 by a disgruntled band member.

Noble Sissle captures Europe and America’s cultural contribution best: “Who would have thought that [the] little U.S.A. would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn to learn how to play it?“

World War I Centennial, 2017–18. With the most comprehensive collection of multiformat World War I holdings in the nation, the Library is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about the Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

Comments (6)

  1. I experienced the intrigue of American Jazz in Eastern Europe in the Czech Republic. As an African American, I felt that a connection and discourse had been historically left poetically behind by prior generations of artists. Every step around town had street musicians playing either jazz or classical music. It was publically the opposite of walking the streets in the U.S.The appreciation of Jazz that is alive in the young and older artists is still a priceless memory. I can only imagine what it must have been like for soldiers to feel that kind of world-class community and love. W.Calvin Anderson, poet

  2. Excellent Thank you. I would also refer you to my ARSC colleague, Rainer Lotz outstanding opus, BLACK EUROPE for those interested in the topic of Black jazz musicians in Europe before 1933.

  3. My maternal grandfather was the jazz musician Frank Arthur Dennie. He was born in the United States of American on June 1884 in Kansas. During World War I, Frank served in France as a musician in the ‘Old Eighth’ or “Illinois 8th Regiment” also called the ‘370th Old Devils’ Army band. General John Pershing said that a black unit led by black officers could not be counted on in combat, he said these men will not fight under the American flag. They would fight to protect American democracy but under French leadership. Therefore the 370th was placed under French command.

    As a jazz musician my grandfather was not on the front line but in one of the recuperation centres behind the trench lines. I am writing a history of my grandfather and I’m aiming for as much accuracy as possible, therefore I’m trying to find out which and where the recuperation centre he was stationed at was. Aix-Le-Bains is a possibility, as certainly jazz was played there, but there may have been other centres. Any help you can give me would be very gratefully received.

  4. Response from Ryan Reft:

    Dear H.R. Lambert: I’d suggest that you check out the NAACP papers (, which has folders on World War I and military service. Also in the NAACP papers is the unpublished memoir of Noble Sissle about James Reese Europe, which though not about the Old Eighth discusses the experiences of Europe and the Harlem Hell Fighters and their legendary regimental band (Box II: J56). The memoir is also part of the Library’s African-American Odyssey exhibit so it’s online, though the platform is a bit choppy (

    You might also try the Kendrick Brooks Family papers. Kendrick was a black Jazz musician from the U.S. in England and Europe during the war, so there might be material related to regimental bands in the collection as well ( Finally, it’s possible there is something on the Old Eighth in the Carter Woodson papers ( Otherwise, I would advise you to contact the Library’s American Folklife Center or its Music Division. I hope these details are helpful.

    • Hi Betsy,

      Thanks for writing the LOC! I’ll be happy to post your comment if you’re willing to make one small edit (I can’t edit or change comments in any way). Our guidelines are that we can’t post links that promote any products in any way, and this includes links for books, authors, etc.

      Could you pls resubmit your post, mentioning the book but not including the link?

      Best wishes,

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