Listening Deeper to our History: The Musical Legacy of the Hellfighters’ Band, Part I

On August 10, 2021, the U.S. Congress passed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold medal, its highest honor, to the 369th Infantry regiment, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” This recognition comes some 103 years after this all-black regiment served in World War I and contributed to the Allied victory. Nicknamed “The Hellfighters” (“Hollenkampfer”) by the Germans because of their prowess on the battlefield, the 369th Infantry also consisted of one of the most influential military bands of the 20th century. It is this part of this group’s storied history that does not always get explored.  

Key to the Hellfighters’ musical importance was its bandleader, James Reese Europe (1881-1919, right), who prior to joining the 15th infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard had emerged as one of America’s most influential and celebrated bandleaders. He was second only to John Philip Sousa in importance.  Europe first came to prominence working with black music theatre productions, but in 1908 he joined a collective of black bandleaders and composers in forming the Clef Club, a black musicians’ union, and orchestra.  In 1912 the group became the first all-black orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall. 

In the ensuing years, Europe formed several different groups, including the Exclusive Society Orchestra, which performed a diverse repertory consisting of popular songs, rags, marches, musical theatre songs, and classical works for elite audiences like the Vanderbilts, and Astors. In 1913, this group became the first black orchestra to be offered a recording contract and for the next three years, recorded exclusively for the Victor Company. Their recordings foreshadowed the sounds that what would be marketed as jazz by 1919. However, in truth, these recordings were largely orchestral forms of ragtime (“Castle Rag”) and blues (“Memphis Blues’’).  

Europe’s fame also grew from his work with famed dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. His society orchestra provided the soundtrack to the array of dances the Castles popularized during this period. But as the war escalated in Europe, Vernon Castle and James Reese Europe enlisted to join the fight. (Castle was British by birth and joined the Royal Air Force) James Reece Europe was one of a few Black officers that served in the 15th Regiment from New York, and he served in the machine gun squadron.  His duties also came to include developing a regimental military band. Europe recruited musicians from all over the country and in time expanded to the municipal bands of Puerto Rico. Yes, the Hellfighters consisted of both Black and Afro-Puerto Rican musicians.  This illuminates another important layer to the ethnic and musical history of the group.  More on this in the next blog.  

Where most regimental bands were limited to 28 musicians, the Hellfighters band consisted of 40.  This was due in part to the diverse and difficult repertory that the group played, which required that musicians not only be proficient in reading music, but also in improvisation.  

So why was this group so important? Well, they have often been credited with introducing blues, ragtime, and early jazz to French audiences. We know that their performances were highly acclaimed, and far-reaching. Consider the fact that between February 12 and March 17, 1918, the group traveled over 2,000 miles performing in twenty-five different cities for French civilians and British, French, and American troops. That’s a lot of performances and a lot of movement.

Audiences greeted the group enthusiastically and the French press heralded every performance. The Hellfighters’ band rejoined their unit in March 1918 to fight under the command of the French Army, who subsequently changed their name to the 369th Regiment.

Although it’s taken 103 years for the 369th Infantry’s contribution to World War I to be formally recognized, the cultural imprint of the Hellfighters’ band is easily traceable. Their final concert in Paris January 31, 1919 drew a crowd of approximately 50,000 and over the next decade, the syncopated rhythms and “blued” harmonies of the group would find their way into the compositions of a number of European composers (e.g. Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky). The recordings the group made while in Paris and America document the revolutionary nature of their sound. But the lasting imprint of the Hellfighters’ band might be its ability to bridge the divide separating popular and classical music, and American and European culture in the early 20th century.  Indeed by 1920, the seeds planted by the Hellfighters’ performances in France would explode into a cultural revolution fueled by innovative performances of Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and other black artisans.

Dr. Tammy

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Listening Deeper to our History: The Musical Legacy of the Hellfighters’ Band, Part I