The Americus Brass Band’s Tribute to Jim Europe

Jim Europe cover

HANDY: St. Louis Blues. BROOKS: Darktown Strutters’ Ball. BETHEL: That Moanin’ Trombone. EUROPE-SISSLE-BLAKE: Good Night Angeline. HENRY-ONIVES: Indianola. CARLETON: Ja-Da. LEWIS-YOUNG: How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? HANDY: The Memphis Blues. EUROPE-SISSLE: On Patrol in No Man’s Land. COBB-RACHMANINOV: Russian Rag. VON DER MEHDEN: Congratulations [Castle’s Lame Duck Waltz]. HANDY-LAUGHNER: The Hesitating Blues / The Americus Brass Band; Richard Birkmeier, dir; Selwyn Gibson, Gerald Wheeler, voc /  Cambria CD-1263

James Reese Europe (1881-1919) was once the dominant African-American musician of his day, but except for a few historical societies that have kept his name alive over the last century, he has become a marginalized figure. Born in Mobile, Alabama, he took up the violin and became very proficient on it, but even after he and his family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was ten, and later yet when he moved to New York City when he was 23, there were no opportunities for a black man (or woman) to play classical violin in public. Europe quickly figured this out, and just as quickly became involved in the growing ragtime scene in New York. He also realized that most African-American musicians scuffled for jobs because they had no agents and, at the same time, were working individually against one another for the few jobs that came up. Europe solved this problem for them by founding the Clef Club, which was both a venue for playing music between gigs (so that people could hear how good they were, and possibly hire them) as well as a sort of “central casting” locale where club owners could call and quickly form a band to attract their customers. In a sense, then, Europe was the first black artists’ agent.

He also formed a ragtime band of his own using the best talent available at the Clef Club. They were so good that they caught the ear of the famous white dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, who hired Europe to write tunes for them to dance to as well as forming bands to play them. His most famous composition thus became The Castle Walk, which was a sensation around 1911-12, as well as other pieces with the Castles’ names in the titles. In 1912, the Clef Club made history when its house band, augmented to twice its normal size, played a ragtime concert at Carnegie Hall to benefit the Colored Music Settlement School. (Some of the people Europe hired for the multi-piece banjo section couldn’t even actually play their instruments, but since he wanted to get them work and have them paid, they “played” banjos with rubber bands for strings!) Sadly, all of this came to an end when Vernon Castle volunteered for the British Army, became an ace pilot for the RAF, but tragically died in a plane crash during a simple training flight in 1918, leaving Irene a widow.

Good Night Angeline sheet music coverBut to return to Europe, he made recordings for Victor in 1913-14, the first all-black band to do so, of some very hot ragtime numbers. Yet his dreams were to create a new form of symphonic music related to black culture, which he would ease into through all-black musical revues on a par with those starring George M, Cohan. When America finally entered World War I, Europe applied for a commission in the New York Army National Guard where he fought with the 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “The Harlem Hellfighters,” when they were assigned to help the French Army overseas. He also formed a band in that unit which provided much-needed entertainment for both French and American soldiers during respites in their battles. Ironically, by going into the armed forces at just about the same time that real jazz first came to New York, Europe completely missed this new development although, as I mentioned earlier, his band was hailed for playing “jazz.” He and the band both survived the war, returned home safely, marched (and played) in one of the victory parades down Fifth Avenue, and then gave concerts in New York and made a dozen records for the Pathé company. Ironically, although the records were made in New York, Pathé was a French label, thus they are not listed in the Discography of American Historical Recordings.

That Moanin' TromboneThe playing of the Hellfighters’ Band is much more polished than that of his Clef Club ragtime band on Victor, but the performances lacked some of their spirit and raw energy. Yet one must also take into account the fact that, by 1919, Pathé’s sound quality was markedly inferior to Victor, Columbia and Brunswick discs. They were about as bad as the dinky little Gennett company of Richmond, Indiana, a label famous for the large number of jazz legends they recorded but not for their dismal sound quality.

Thus this album of recreations, apparently made in 2019 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Europe’s original recordings, goes a long way towards restoring the band’s style. The Americus Brass Band, founded more than four decades ago by students of the Music Department at California State University in Long Beach, has made a specialty of playing American military and old concert band repertoire in addition to giving some concerts honoring Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, although its primary focus is the music of the Civil War period.

Having been familiar with Europe’s Hellfighters Band recordings for nearly 40 years, I was amazed at how close to the originals these recreations were. I say that not because I questioned this band’s musicianship, but the contrary, that their knowledge of jazz and how a jazz rhythm differs from a ragtime rhythm would somehow color their performances, make them sound too loose, closer to a jazz feel than Europe’s original recordings sounded. But they’re not.. They’re perfect.

Now, when I use the word “ragtime,” the reader must understand that there was black ragtime and white ragtime. White ragtime was so close to marches that one could scarcely tell the difference. Black ragtime, even in its pre-jazz style, had a looser rhythmic feel—just compare Scott Joplin’s own piano rolls of his rags to any white pianist’s recreations to hear what I mean—and this crossed over to the band style. The black musicians really knew how to make those clarinet smears and trombone slurs nudge the music slightly forward, not quite on the beat 100%, whereas the white musicians were just attempting to emulate the blacks and not quite succeeding (unless they came from New Orleans or Chicago, and had formed their musical style listening to and sitting in with black musicians). The way this band, and Europe’s, played such familiar pieces as Ja-Da and Darktown Strutters’ Ball will tell you all you need to know about the difference. (Incidentally, I also recommend that you listen to how Bunk Johnson’s 1947 band of African-Americans played pieces from Joplin’s Red Back Book…they have the same feel to them.) Feeling the difference between these performances of these two selections, as well as St, Louis Blues which was a relatively new song at the time, will tell you everything you need to know about the real black ragtime style and how it was supposed to sound. Please remember that, when the Europe band played for the soldiers in France, those who were musicians came backstage afterwards and asked Europe if they could examine the instruments. They were certain that they were “rigged” in some way because they sounded so different from the way they played them. But the instruments were completely normal; it was the players’ style that was different. (Nowhere, I think, is this as noticeable as in their rendition of How Ya Gonna Keep “em Down on the Farm.)

Noble Sissle, who along with pianist-songwriter Eubie Blake brought Jim Europe’s dream of an all-black musical to life in 1921 with Shuffle Along, had been the band’s singer and performed on some of the recordings. Believe it or not, I was even more apprehensive about the vocals on these recordings, certain that either the voices or the singing style would sound wrong—again, due to a century of changing pop styles—but by golly, they’re just fine. Relaxed, musical, and very much in the style of 1919.

Thanks to the extraordinary digital sound quality, which suddenly expanded the original tone of Europe’s band from a faded black-and-white print to wide-screen digital Cinemascope, I have to admit that I actually enjoyed these recreations better than the originals. This band literally worked their tails off to come as close to Jim Europe’s style as was humanly possible in 2019, and they succeeded. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to close your eyes and picture yourself sitting there in a 1919 New York concert hall, listening to the Europe band in person. That’s how close they come to their models. (It even crossed my mind to junk Europe’s original Pathés completely and just keep this CD, but I decided in the end to keep both.)

James Europe’s death was sudden and shocking. After a concert with his orchestra in May 1919, he dressed down his twin percussionists, Steve and Herbert Wriight, for walking offstage while other musicians were playing solos. Herbert Wright became incensed, threw down his drumsticks and stabbed Europe in the neck with his penknife. The wound seemed superficial; Europe put his hand over the cut vein to stop the bleeding, told the band he was going to the hospital to have it stitched up, and would see them in the morning for rehearsal, but at the hospital they couldn’t stop the bleeding, and Europe died. He was only 38 years old.

From a musical standpoint, Europe’s career was quite good for its time but not extraordinary. What was extraordinary were his ingenuity, business acumen, leadership qualities and a vision to place African-Americans in the forefront of American culture. As Eubie Blake put it, Europe was “the musical Martin Luther King of this time.” Thus this music should not be praised too highly in terms of art; it was entertainment, but entertainment on as high a level of ingenuity and craftsmanship as the best the white population could provide, and that was his point. People are people, and no race is either inferior or superior to any other.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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