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Jason Moran to celebrate James Reese Europe at the Barbican

HELLFIGHTERS: James Reese Europe (right) was a member of one of the most acclaimed fighting outfits in the First World War

FOR SOMEONE as important to music as James Reese Europe, he’s woefully forgotten by the history books. But his achievement of bringing African American music out of the ghettos and into mainstream acceptance, at a time when slavery was still within living memory, still resonates today.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1880, Europe was already an established musician when he joined up to fight in the First World War - his Clef Club Orchestra was the first African American group to perform at New York’s hallowed Carnegie Hall in May 1912. When he signed up, Colonel Hayward ordered him to put together the best band he could muster, and they became the band of the 369th Regiment – the so called Hellfighters.

This was a unit of African American soldiers, many of whom joined up hoping to improve the political and social situation for black people back at home, where racism was rife.

Despite suffering terrible ignominy and injustice at the hands of US generals, The Hellfighters became one of the most acclaimed fighting outfits in the war, being awarded the prestigious French medal, the Croix de Guerre for their bravery. The unit’s military acclaim was matched by that of its regimental band. In 1918, Europe and his men performed across France, winning over audiences wherever they went.

On their return to America, many of the soldiers had their medals unrecognised and were not given any assistance despite their bravery and injuries received, yet the band went on a national tour.

One hundred years later, the man hailed at the time of his death as “The King of Jazz”, has been pushed to the margins of the history books. Even acclaimed jazz composer Jason Moran, whose new multimedia work with filmmakers, Bradford Young, (Selma, A Violent Year and Arrival) and John Akomfrah, The Harlem Hellfighters is a tribute to Europe, admits he learned of his story late.

“I was introduced to him by the great pianist, Randy Weston. He told me how James Reese Europe organised African American musicians in a way that didn’t exist before. But the thing is, I can’t recall Europe’s name ever coming up when I was at the Manhattan School of Music.

“His importance is known, but he’s kind of been wiped away from history,” Akomfrah said.

He added: “For Europe, this music – by people who had only really recently been freed from slavery – had something. Syncopation suggests to the country, the listeners, and the musicians that play it, that we’re edging ahead on the beat in America – and that’s a powerful sentiment.”

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