In my last blog, I wrote about the musical legacy of the 369th Infantry or the Harlem Hellfighters. I referenced the fact that while we think of this as an all-black regiment, it also included a number of Puerto Rican soldiers. Of the forty-plus musicians that served in the Hellfighters’ regimental band, 18 were Boricua or of Puerto Rican ancestry. As historians continue to outline the importance of this military unit to the Allied victory, I think it is just as important that we discuss how this reshapes the of musical legacy of this group. The discussion of the Afro-Latin legacy of the Hellfighters’ band illuminates the broad musical foundation that shaped the global influence of this group.
What should be noted early on is that the Hellfighters’ band was not the first time James Reese Europe had worked with Latino musicians. As early as 1912 bassist and tuba player Rafael Escudero (1891-1970) played in his Clef Club Orchestra and Europe’s Syncopated Society Orchestra also contained several Puerto Rican musicians. So, it was of no surprise to many of Europe’s peers when he decided to recruit musicians from the island to fill out the sound of the Hellfighters’ band. The eighteen musicians that arrived in New York in 1917 to join the 15th Regiment were highly skilled and played more than one instrument. Most started their careers working in bandas muncipales (municipal bands), which were prominent throughout Latin America.
These groups, like the one pictured in this photo, were modeled after military bands and they played in a style that fused European military practices with local traditions. With the passage of the Jones-Sharoth Act in 1917, which gave US citizenship to anyone born on the island, thousands of young men registered for the draft under the banner of the U.S. flag.
Many of the Afro-Puerto Rican musicians that served in the Hellfighters band had strong personal ties that stretched back to childhood. These relationships as well as their shared lived experiences were important as they navigated language barriers and the racial politics of the American armed services. These cultural differences were bridged once the music started.
While many of these musicians were familiar with some North American popular music forms, the regimental band’s diverse repertory also exposed them to more regional forms like black and white hymnody, the blues, and ragtime. The syncopated rhythms of the latter two and the proto jazz compositions the band played were like many of the folk traditions of Afro-Puerto Ricans. The advanced musicianship of musicians like Rafael Hernández (clarinet, left), Rafael Duchesne, José Rosa (tuba), Severino Hernández and their black counterparts were central to the peculiar and hypnotic sound of the Hellfighters’ band.
After the war, many of these musicians continued to work with Europe performing as a newly formed Hellfighters’ band for a series of post-war concerts. They also participated in the last recording sessions Europe made prior to his death in 1919. It is these recordings that provide up some glimpse and understanding of the radical nature of this group’s sound. But we still have so much to learn.
The obscurity that surrounds the legacy of many of these musicians is due to many factors. Some of these musicians returned to Puerto Rico after spending some years in America and focused on popularizing and preserving Latin American dance and music traditions like plena, danza, and jibaro. Many found it increasingly difficult to navigate the racial tensions that surged following World War I, and either anglicized their names and assumed new identities or integrated into the sanctuary of cultural spaces like Harlem. Those that chose the latter contributed significantly to progression of black musical theater in the 1920s, and jazz through their work with the dance orchestras of black bandleaders like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. So, I invite you to listen to the Europe band’s recording of W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” from 1919 as near the very end of song you will hear a trombonist improvising during the break. It is believed to be Rafael Hernández, one of the most celebrated of Europe’s Boricua band members.