The Troy Street Observer

May 9, 1919: James Reese Europe Slain in Boston

On May 9, 1919, bandleader James Reese Europe was mortally wounded at a Boston concert backstage at Mechanics Hall on Huntington Avenue.

Photo of the 369th Infantry Band
The 369th Infantry Band

Where do you start with Jim Europe? A pianist and violinist in the early years of the twentieth century in New York, he was hired as music director for his first stage show in 1906. In 1910, he organized the Clef Club, a black musicians union. In 1912, he led the first orchestra of black musicians to play Carnegie Hall. In 1913, he signed a Victor recording contract, also a first for a black musician, and in 1914 he composed music for the white dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle (“The Castle Walk,” “The Castle House Rag”).

In 1917, the army asked Europe to organize a military band for the 369th Infantry, an all-black regiment nicknamed the “Hell Fighters.” They served in France for over a year, and inspired the French as well as the American army with their music. The Hell Fighters returned to New York and a Fifth Avenue parade in February 1919.

Again a civilian, Europe made additional recordings, and organized a tour for his military band. The orchestra was to play in Boston at Mechanics Hall on May 9, and on the State House steps for the governor on May 10. Europe then was probably the most important figure in black music in America, and certainly the most popular.

Accounts differ somewhat regarding what happened at intermission at Mechanics Hall. Europe had words with Herbert Wright, one of the orchestra’s drummers, and an agitated Wright attacked Europe with a pocket knife, stabbing him in the neck. The wound did not appear serious. Europe gave instructions for the remainder of the concert and went to Boston City Hospital for treatment. But the bleeding could not be stopped and Europe died that evening.

Europe’s pre-war recordings reflect the syncopated ragtime that was popular then, but his last recordings show him on the threshold of jazz, and one scholar, Gunther Schuller, says he was as important as Jelly Roll Morton in those transitional years. And he was determined to make music that reflected African-American life and experience. He was quoted in 1919 as saying: “I have come back from France more firmly convinced than ever that negroes should write negro music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy whites we will make bad copies… We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.” We can only imagine what Europe would have brought to the 1920s.

Herbert Wright was convicted of manslaughter and served eight years in prison. After his release in 1927, he lived quietly in Roxbury, working as a dance band drummer. At some point he gave a neighborhood boy his first drum lesson. That boy was Roy Haynes.

Here is Europe’s 1919 recording of “Memphis Blues.”

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