Sunday, February 22, 2009

James Reese Europe (re-run)

Today is the birthday of James Reese Europe (1880-1919). The following book review, which I wrote, was commissioned by the L.A. Times in 1995, but was never published. Probably space was tight that week; a new edition of The Olivia DeHavilland Macrame Cookbook had just been published and most likely took precedence.

I came across the manuscript of the review---along with a handful of old snow---in a desk drawer recently. Hmmmm, come to think of it, did I ever get that "kill" fee from The Times?

When ''A Life in Ragtime" was first published, it cost $30; shortly afterward it was selling on for $40. How can they afford to do that? The same answer as usual: volume Volume VOLUME!

A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger Oxford University Press, 328 pp.
by Bill Reed

On the evening of May 2, 1912, African-American composer-conductor James Reese Europe---the subject of Reid Badger's A Life in Ragtime---oversaw a "Concert of Negro Music," at Carnegie Hall, a hallowed venue that seldom if ever before had opened its doors to jazz. A presentation of the black musical fraternity, the Clef Club, Europe's transcultural experiment took place more than ten years before white band leader Paul Whiteman received a great deal more attention with almost the exact same kind of program at New York's Aeolian Hall in 1924 "'Rhapsody in Blue" etc.). At the time, faux "King of Jazz" Whiteman got all the credit for---in the sad parlance of the times--"making lady jazz respectable."

But Europe did eventually secure his quarter-hour in the spotlight; not, however, for his musical liberation of the Eurocentric concert hall (the 1912 Carnegie Clef Club occasion was the first of a number of like events held there under Europe's aegis). Nor was it because of his role as musical director for the sensational dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle who---in novelist Ishmael Reed's words---"inspired a generation of young women to cast aside their corsets and petticoats" (and bob their hair). Rather, it was as a World War One hero that Europe finally caught the fancy of the American public.

"We drank a bottle of wine and all the Frenchmen were happy as larks, just as though we were going to a picnic. . .When I came to myself: one of the officers touched me on the shoulder and said, 'All right, lieutenant, the time has come to go.'" The next thing Europe knew, he was "over the top" in an episode partaking equally of gallows humor and grand guignol ("For a while I thought I was having a terrible nightmare and kept trying to wake up").

Europe's participation in battle was in addition to his leadership of the famed all-black 369th Infantry Hellfighters Band---Which may have been the finest U.S. military musical outfit ever. And it is the stirring welcome home of the 369th marching uptown to Harlem, Europe in the lead of the band, with which Badger opens his "Life in Ragtnne" of this overlooked force in American music:

"On an unusually bright, faintly spring like morning in mid-February 1919 in New York City, a huge crowd of perhaps 1 million people gathered along Fifth Avenue all the way from Madison Square Park to 110th Street, and from there along Lenox Avenue north to 145th Street. . .On February 7,1919, antagonisms and prejudices were set aside, subsumed with a more generous spirit that seemed to promise a new era for America." Badger goes on to quote a "remarkable editorial in the Jewish Daily News': "These Negroes have helped win the war. Let us hope that their unflinching courage in the face of death will be remembered. "

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the KKK spurred by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of A Nation---among other virulent anti-black social forces existing at the time---such a rosy conclusion to America's conflict on its own shores was not to be. And only a few days later after the Victory Parade, Europe was dead; killed in Boston by a crazed band member during the fifth concert of a planned 10-week, 18-city triumphant barnstorming of the U.S. by the Hellfighters band. Europe was only 39.

Fortunately, the Hellfighters Band, under Europe's direction, recorded several sides shortly after their return to America, but what the extraordinary 1912 Clef Club concert must have sounded like, with its exotic combination of instruments - 50 mandolins, 20 violins, 30 harp-guitars (bandolines), 10 cellos, 1 saxophone, 10 banjos, 2 organs, 10 pianos, 5 flutes, 5 bass-viols, 5 clarinets and 3 timpani and drums - is almost impossible to imagine. On July 14, 1989, however, a scaled-down recreation of the event, consisting of somewhat fewer than a hundred - black and white- players (4 pianos etc.), was held again at Carnegie. It was a huge success; an evening with the ring of the historic that also called attention to the glory of the original occasion.

Badger's essentially first-rate attempt to set the record straight regarding major musical force Europe misses certain things. There is, for example, no strong sense of how Europe's trailblazing efforts in large ensemble jazz might have influenced the just-around-the-corner likes of Henderson, Ellington and Gershwin: It is claimed by at least one Gershwin scholar that a young, white and underage George would sometimes make the long journey from New York's Lower East Side all the way north of Harlem to stand outside the Manhattan Casino and listen to Europe's early Clef Club concerts; but Badger does not deal with this. Too, he seems to have relegated some of the most fascinating morsels for his killer footnotes---nearly as long as his main text; including the fact that (cultural conspiracy theorists take note), in order to satisfy southern exhibitors of the of the 1939 musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, neither Europe or any other Aftican-American is depicted. The Castle's band leader is white and even a real-life black valet is played by a white actor. Curiously, Badger makes no mention of Stormy Weather, 20th-Century-Fox's black-cast corrective of a few years later in which Europe's musical exploits with the 369th are duly dramatized. But this is just so much postmodernist carping; what finally matters --- the important historical facts, lined up nicely in a row --- is that here is a meticulously-researched, enlightening biography of one who paved the way musically for the Jazz Age. . . and still found time to help rout the dreaded Hun.

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