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Long before the SS Stockholm docked in New York Harbor on February 12, 1919—Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, just three months after the end of World War I—the combat-hardened African American soldiers aboard the transatlantic liner had already achieved some measure of fame in their homeland. They were the “Harlem Hellfighters” of the 369th Infantry Regiment, returning to the United States after more than a year on the bloody battlefields of the Western Front, where they had earned their proud nom de guerre that defines them to this day. 

For much of the war, the most famous Harlem Hellfighter of them all was armed not with a rifle, but with a baton. Lieutenant James Reese Europe, renowned on two continents as the Jazz King, was the only remaining African American officer in his unit. He pressed against the ship’s railing alongside members of his regimental band, which had electrified all of France during the war. Catching sight of the Statue of Liberty, Europe turned to the band and had it play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, as the Stockholm neared the pier to dock, the musicians swung into “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” All the soldiers on board joined in, singing at the top of their lungs. 

A reporter for the New York Tribune, caught up in the moment, wrote: “The syncopated volume of sound that swelled from the Stockholm’s deck found responsive chords in the hearts of the bronzed veterans on the transport and in those hundreds of their relatives, friends and sweethearts from their home district in Harlem, who had chartered the steamer Correction to go down the bay. Swaying bodies, snapping fingers, inimitably contorted faces greeted each other across the narrow expanse of water in the language of rhythm.”

Since the death of jazz virtuoso Scott Joplin two years earlier, nobody embodied that rhythm—ragtime rhythm—better than James Reese Europe. Born in 1881 in Mobile, Alabama, he was raised in Washington, D.C. His parents were talented amateur musicians, and they made sure that Jimmy and his siblings learned to play the piano as well as the violin—he studied violin with Enrico Hurlei, the assistant director of the U.S. Marine Band—and fostered in them a love of classical music. To continue his musical studies, Jimmy moved to New York City in 1904, settling in its notorious Tenderloin district. There he took charge of the African American musicians hanging around saloons and brothels, waiting for calls to perform. He organized them into a cohesive union, dubbed the Clef Club, and moved them to a more respectable waiting place. He found the musicians regular work, calling their engagements “gigs,” reportedly a word he coined himself. 

The Harlem Hellfighters and members of another African American infantry regiment arrive in New York on the SS Stockholm. (National Archives)

On May 2, 1912, Europe conducted his own Clef Club Symphony Orchestra, the largest African American orchestra yet to play Carnegie Hall. David Mannes, the concertmaster of the New York Symphony Orchestra, never forgot the moment when Europe walked onstage. “Big Jim Europe was an amazingly inspiring conductor,” Mannes later recalled. “Of a statuesquely powerful build, he moved with simple and modest grace, always dominating this strange assemblage before him with quiet control.” The concert, with people crowded together, regardless of race, throughout the theater, was a stunning success. It was also the beginning of Europe’s dream to create what he termed a true “National Negro Symphony Orchestra.” He had already organized the Tempo Club, a popular ragtime group, and provided music for the most beloved dance couple in the country, Vernon and Irene Castle. 

While Europe was organizing Harlem’s musicians, the city’s African American community was clamoring for a National Guard regiment of its own. At the time, New York City had almost a dozen militias, from the silk-stocking 7th Regiment on the Upper East Side to the Fighting Irish 69th downtown on Lexington Avenue. But the calls from Harlem went unanswered until June 2, 1913, when Governor William “Plain Bill” Sulzer signed into law legislation authorizing a “colored” regiment. The headline in the city’s African American newspaper, the New York Age, read: “We Have the Regiment!”

But no such regiment was formed. For several years the law was ignored or forgotten. It took Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa to change the situation. In 1916, Villa and his bandits crossed into New Mexico and killed 18 Americans. An infuriated President Woodrow Wilson responded by sending federal troops, led by Brigadier General John J. Pershing, across the border to hunt down Villa. Wilson also sent National Guard troops from various states to protect the U.S.-Mexico border from Texas to California. New York dispatched its entire division to the banks of the Rio Grande River in southeastern Texas. Suddenly there was hardly a National Guard unit left in the Empire State. 

Colonel William Hayward persuaded Europe to organize his regimental band. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

William Hayward, an enterprising, young assistant district attorney, soon noticed the absence of citizen soldiers to protect New York City. Hayward, who had managed Republican Charles Whitman’s successful campaign for governor in 1914, located the old law that Sulzer had signed, and with the backing of the state’s adjutant general, he and Lorillard S. Spencer, the governor’s military secretary, convinced Whitman to organize an all-Black regiment with Hayward as its colonel. The governor did so, and the 15th New York Infantry Regiment was born.

The moment Jim Europe heard about the new regiment, he knew that he had to enlist. “I have been in New York for 16 years and there has never been such an organization of Negro men that will bring together all classes of men for a common good,” he explained to fellow jazzman Noble Sissle. “And our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anywhere else unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community. New York cannot afford to lose this great chance for such a strong, powerful institution, for the development of the Negro manhood of Harlem.”

Very few African Americans, however, were enlisting in the regiment. Those who did had no uniforms and were forced to march on the streets of Harlem with broomsticks instead of rifles. Hayward was about to give up—until the moment he realized that one of the enlistees was the famous conductor Jim Europe. He begged Europe to organize a regimental band. He believed that a band marching under the baton of the famous ragtime composer would save the regiment. Europe balked. He wanted to be a soldier, he said, not a bandleader. As a civilian, he had already led several bands—even an orchestra. Why enlist to lead another? To accommodate Hayward, however, Europe agreed to organize a band if the colonel could raise $10,000. The money would be used to entice the very best musicians into the regiment. Europe believed that it would be impossible for Hayward to raise such a kingly sum.

But the bandleader had badly underestimated the colonel. Thanks to his background in politics and government, Hayward was exceptionally well connected. He figured that if he could get 100 people to each donate $100, he would soon have Europe’s $10,000. Hayward’s first stop was to see industrialist Daniel G. Reid, known as the “Tin Plate King.” Reid had amassed a fortune manufacturing tin plate and had joined J. P. Morgan in organizing the United States Steel Corporation. Hayward asked Reid if he would personally contribute $100 and send letters to 30 or 40 of his richest friends asking them to donate to Hayward’s effort. Instead, Reid wrote out a check for $10,000 and handed it to Hayward, saying, “That’s a damn sight easier than writing you forty letters of introduction.”

Europe was now on the hook. To Hayward, he said, “Yes, sir, I gave you my word, so you can depend on me.” With the help of his friend Noble Sissle, now his drum major and lead singer, Europe began to recruit the best musicians, not just in New York but also in Chicago, where he signed crack cornet player Frank De Broit, and even as far away as Puerto Rico, where he recruited 18 first-class instrumentalists. Europe picked up several more musicians from the well-known Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston, South Carolina, including drummers Herbert and Steve Wright (not related). They would prove to be fateful additions to the group.

On July 4, 1918, with Europe leading his machine-gun company in combat, Second Lieutenant Eugene Mikell leads the 369th’s band in a concert at French general Henri Gouraud’s headquarters in Châlons-sur-Marne. (Adoc-Photos/Getty Images)

When Europe’s regimental band paraded down the streets of Harlem, it drew thousands of onlookers, many of whom rushed off to enlist at the regiment’s recruiting office, which had taken over a cigar store. Soon the ranks of the 15th New York were filled. The band’s biggest moment came on June 22, 1917, just after the United States had declared war on Germany. That evening, more than 4,000 people crowded into the Manhattan Casino, a popular nightclub at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem, for the band’s gala performance. Powder was spread on the dance floor to keep the hardwood “from burning up when four thousand pairs of feet started shuffling over it,” according to Sissle. Lester Walton, a critic for the New York Age, wrote that the dance floor “resembled the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour.” 

After a racially charged training stay at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the 15th was hastily ordered back to New York and sent across the Atlantic Ocean to the Western Front—presumably to keep it out of harm’s way. Hayward and his men landed in Brest on a snowy and bitterly cold day—the first African American regiment to march onto French soil. Instead of marching to the front, however, they were assigned to the port of Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France and put to work as common laborers. Captain Hamilton Fish III, the captain of K Company, scorned it as “pick and shovel work.” The men helped build up the port to handle American troopships and the landing of thousands of eager doughboys. The men of the 15th “did everything in France but fight,” a reporter for the New York Evening World wrote. “They chopped wood, dug holes, and built railroads.”

The reporter described how the men struggled to lift their spirits by playing music and singing hymns and other familiar tunes, including ragtime and the latest songs of the war. They serenaded the French civilians and the soldiers stationed at Saint-Nazaire. “Jim Europe’s band made the greatest kind of hit in the drab life of the French and the villagers used to walk for miles to hear it,” the reporter observed, adding that their singing “tickled the French fancy.”

Before long Europe and his band would become famous throughout France. Director Winthrop Ames and actor E. H. Sothern, representatives of the YMCA’s National War Work Council, were on the hunt for performers to entertain doughboys at a planned recreation center in Aix-les-Bains, a posh resort town at the foot of the French Alps. They stopped by Saint-Nazaire to visit with Hayward. One night they were sitting around a muddy field when the 15th’s band marched in. The YMCA men were startled at its size. “No sooner had they begun to play,” Ames noted, “than it became obvious that we were not listening to the ordinary army band at all, but to an organization of the very highest quality, trained and led by a conductor of genius.”

Ames asked Hayward who the conductor was and was amazed by the answer. “We asked his name,” Ames later recalled, “and were told that he was no less a musician than James Reese Europe, already famous in America, but whom we little expected to find a soldier in France.” Ames signed Europe and his band on the spot to open at Aix-les-Bains. The ensuing train trip across the war-ravaged countryside of France, from the ocean to the Alps, began auspiciously with an overnight stay in Nantes. The townsfolk there were ready. Because it was Lincoln’s birthday, they had planned a gala reception and evening concert in the city’s opera house. The square in front of the opera house was jammed. Inside, all the seats were filled. Very few French people had ever heard ragtime music. When Europe and his band reached the square and began to play, there was no holding back the throng. After maintaining a polite silence during the playing of a number, the listeners burst into wild applause.

The next day the band continued on to Aix-les-Bains. It stopped along the way at Tours, where war correspondent and author Irwin S. Cobb chronicled the band’s reception there. “Music poured in at their ears and ran down to their heels,” Cobb wrote. “When the band got to ‘Way Down Upon the Suwanee River’ I wanted to cry.” He saw, too, how the music affected the French villagers who had already endured three long years of suffering. They openly cried, he reported.

From Tours, the band stopped at 10 more towns and then finally reached Aix-les-Bains on February 15, where it received another rousing welcome. With the mayor and Major Arthur Little leading the way, the military musicians marched through the crowded streets of the resort town to the Casino Theater, where for the next 16 days they entertained doughboys fresh off the battlefield. The soldiers, some with trench mud still dried on their uniforms, were startled at first to be entertained by Black musicians. But the moment the band broke into George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” they jumped onto their tables and shouted and waved their caps. “Play it again!” they yelled.

“No other form of entertainment appealed to them quite so much,” recalled Winthrop Ames. The gig was extended for two more weeks. 

Meanwhile, Hayward finally received the orders he wanted for his regiment. It had been assigned to the French Fourth Army and its numerical designation changed from the 15th to the 369th. It was now on its way to the front. And so were Europe and his band. At the last concert, the director of the recreation area went on stage. “Tomorrow, these men, who for a month have given us so much pleasure, proceed to the front lines, to serve in the trenches against…” He never got to finish. Everyone in the theater rose to their feet, yelling and whistling, yanking flags from balconies and waving them in patriotic fervor. “On the stage,” Little wrote, “the colored soldiers who had been spat upon in Spartanburg, rose and bowed—and grinned.” The journey back to the front had been long and winding. The band had traveled almost 2,000 miles and played in more than 25 cities.

Ragtime had arrived in France.

Europe’s time with the band was over—at least for a bit. He now realized his wish to become a gun-toting officer, but it wouldn’t last long. He was soon sent to Paris to rejoin his band and perform at hospitals and before government dignitaries, French and American. At the same time, the War Department ordered all African American officers in the 369th to other Black regiments, technically leaving Europe the only African American officer in the original 15th New York. As part of that order, Noble Sissle, the band’s singer and drum major, was promoted to lieutenant and sent off to the 370th Infantry. He and Europe would not reunite until after the war.

Paris proved another triumph for Europe and his fellow musicians. Europe later described his first performance in the French capital to Grenville Vernon, a drama critic and celebrated denizen of Broadway: “What was to be our only concert was in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées,” he told Vernon. “Before we had played two numbers the audience went wild. We had conquered Paris.” In the audience, he said, was General Tasker H. Bliss, the U.S. military representative to the Allied Supreme War Council, seated with high-ranking French officers. When they heard the band, Europe said, they “insisted we should stay in Paris, and there we stayed.”

The turning point, according to the bandleader, came at Tuileries Gardens, where the Hellfighters joined some of the greatest military bands in the world—the British Grenadiers Band, the Band Garde Républicaine, and the Royal Italian Band—in performing before 50,000 people. “Ragtimitis,” as Sissle described it, spread across France.

Europe believed that the reason he and his band “won” France was that they were “playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others.” He was firmly convinced that African Americans should compose their own music and not imitate White music. “The music of our race springs from the soil,” he explained to Vernon. On returning to the United States, he was planning to pick up where he had left off before the war.

Keeping his band together and adding more musicians, Europe organized a barnstorming tour of the States from New York through Pennsylvania, as far west as St. Louis, and then back east to Boston and Harlem. Before heading out on the tour, the band cut a record for Pathé. The numbers included the two compositions about no man’s land that Europe had written overseas, as well as “Jazz Baby,” “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “That Moaning Trombone,” “Plantation Echoes,” and “Memphis Blues” by the noted composer W. C. Handy, the widely heralded “Father of the Blues” and Europe’s dear friend.

The tour got off to a resounding start, with sellouts at every stop. Newspapers showered the band with glowing reviews as the best in the land. A critic for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, the city’s most popular newspaper, gushed: “If Shakespeare had heard Jim Europe’s jazz band at the Academy yesterday afternoon, he would have gone home, dipped his quill in the blackest black ink he could find, and written jazz.” 

The all-Black 15th New York Infantry Regiment marches up Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1917. The following year it would be redesignated the 369th Infantry Regiment. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

For nearly two months the Hellfighters traveled by train from one city to another. On May 8, they chugged out of Philadelphia and into Boston, their last concert before returning home. In Massachusetts, the band would play at the Boston Common in front of the statehouse, with Governor Calvin Coolidge in attendance, to honor the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Infantry of Civil War fame.

The musicians arrived in the rain with a strong wind blowing off Boston Harbor. Some of the band members were irritable; almost all were downcast. Europe had picked up a cold and worried that it might turn into pneumonia. To make matters worse, the venue for their first concert, Mechanics Hall, was, according to Sissle, “very cold and barn-like.” Pounding rain kept attendance low for the matinee as well as the evening concert. The tour was ending on a downbeat. Europe was in a sour mood, and his main drummer, Herbert Wright, was acting strangely, sometimes wandering off stage while his bandmates were playing. “Put more pep in the sticks,” Europe snapped at Wright.

Leaving Sissle to conduct the band, Europe left the stage to seek shelter in a backstage dressing room. Wright, who was subject to wild mood swings, possibly exacerbated by disease or posttraumatic stress disorder, jumped up from behind his drums and followed Europe. (Sissle, sensing that something bad was about to happen, wasn’t far behind.) Inside the dressing room, the two got into a heated argument. Wright attacked the composer with a penknife. With a wild backhand blow, he struck Europe in the neck, nicking Europe’s carotid artery. Stunned, the conductor tugged at the stiff collar of his uniform. When he got it loose, Sissle observed, “a stream of blood spurted from a small wound.”

Within moments an ambulance arrived to carry Europe to a hospital. As he was wheeled out of Mechanics Hall, he whispered to Sissle, “I am going to the hospital, and I will have my wound dressed and I will be at the Common in the morning in time to conduct the band.” He was wrong; there would be no statehouse ceremony. Doctors were unable to stop the bleeding, and Europe died that night. His dream of a National Negro Symphony Orchestra died with him. Wright was subsequently convicted of manslaughter, though the charge was reduced because of his diminished mental capacity, and served eight years in the Massachusetts State Prison. 

With Europe’s death, America lost one of its greatest ragtime composers. The “fighting bandmaster” who had brought music and harmony to America and the battlefields of France was buried with full military honors, as a bugler played “Taps,” at Arlington National Cemetery.

Stephen L. Harris is the author of five books, including Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I (Potomac Books, 2005).

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Hellfighter