African-American History Month: James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe, 1881-1919

“He was our benefactor and inspiration. Even more, he was the Martin Luther King of Music.” Pianist Eubie Blake said this of  composer/bandleader James Reese Europe,  who was born in Mobile, Alabama on February 22, 1881. Europe’s accomplishments run from the grand “Concert of Negro Music” that he conducted for a 125-man orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1912; to his collaboration with dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, which gave the world’s ballrooms the turkey-trot and the fox-trot.

During World War I, Europe was a Lieutenant in the 369th Infantry, in which he famously led a band with Noble Sissle.  Sissle wrote, “Who has ever heard of an orchestra such as this one, having included in its personnel, Twenty Pianos,  Sixty Guitars, Fourteen Celli and Twenty Basses?” Read Sissle’s unpublished memoir of Lieutenant Jim Europe in the “World War I and Postwar Society” section of the African American Odyssey on American Memory.

Europe’s influence on music is felt to this day, from his compositions to his leadership of black-owned, black-run musical organizations.  His 1914 recording of  “The Castles in Europe One-Step (Castle House Rag),” was named to the National Registry of Recordings in 2004.  See arrangements of Europe’s compositions, and listen to recordings of his works, in African-American Band Music in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia.

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