February 13, 1918 – Jazz Arrives in Europe
Pictured – James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters band.
The French had been living with war for years now, and the endless convoys of guns and soldiers no longer excited crowds as they once had. That was until the Americans began arriving in 1917. French crowds gawked at the endless ranks of young, tall soldiers from the New World, come to help out the Old. But it was their music, as much as their arms, that excited the French.
The U.S. Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment had arrived in Brest in December. There were many African Americans in the army, but the majority never left the harbor they had landed in in France. America’s Jim Crow politics meant a segregated army, and giving guns to black men was anathema to most white Americans. Most black men ended up in labor battalions, often without uniforms, but the 369th was luckier. Made up of black enlisted men with both black and white officers, the New Yorkers of the “Harlem Hellfighters” were destined for combat, and received training from experienced French troops that winter.
The Hellfighters would receive their share of attention in due time, but for now their band commanded the spotlight. The aptly named James Reese Europe had organized the regiment’s band out of some of the best jazz players in the country. Europe introduced America to the foxtrot in 1914. Now he introduced Europe to jazz.
The regimental band launched a series of concerts in Nantes in February 1918, and Europe would never sound the same again. The drums, saxophones, and horns were unlike anything the bewildered Nantais had ever seen. They loved every minute of it. “When the band had finished and the people were roaring with laughter,
their faces wreathed in smiles, I was forced to say that this is just
what France needed at this critical moment,“ wrote one of the band
members, Noble Sissle, in his memoirs. The jazz age had begun.
*Correction – The initial post mistakenly said 1917, not 1918.