The Return of Lieutenant James Reese Europe
(Victory Parade, New York City, February, 1919)
by Rita Dove
We trained in the streets: the streets where we came from.We drilled with sticks, boys darting between bushes, shouting–that’s all you thought we were good for. We trained anyway.In camp we had no plates or forks. First to sail, first to join the French, first to see combat with the shortest training time.
My, the sun is looking fine today.
We toured devastation, American good willin a forty-four piece band. Dignitaries smiles; the woundedsettled back to dream. That old woman in St. Nazairewho tucked up her skirts so she could ‘walk the dog.’German prisoners tapping their feet as we went by.
Miss Flatiron with your tall cool self: How do.
You didn’t want us when we left but we went.You didn’t want us coming back but here we are,stepping right up white-faced Fifth Avenue in a phalanx(no prancing, no showing of teeth, no swank)past the Library lions, eyes forward, tin hats aligned–
a massive, upheld human shield.
No jazz for you: We’ll play a brisk French marchand show our ribbons, flash our Croix de Guerre(yes, we learned French, too) all the wayuntil we reach 110th Street and yes! take our turnonto Lenox Avenue and all those brown faces and then–
Baby, Here Comes Your Daddy Now!
–from American Smooth (Norton, 2004)
James Reese Europe is a real historical figure, a seminal band leader and jazz innovator, playing ragtime and compositions of his own, who in his mid-30s enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment (the legendary “Harlem Hellfighters”) and fought in France when his unit was assigned to French forces. He was also in charge of the regimental band and played morale concerts for wounded and hospitalized soldiers, French civilians, and passerbys. He also played in military parades in NYC on embarkation to France and on their return, as described in the poem.
Europe was in effect America’s first jazz ambassador and the success his band enjoyed in France, particularly when they played what he called “Negro music” convinced him that this was American music’s future. Before the war, Europe had enjoyed success as a composer and arranger in Washington, D.C. and New York, even performed at Carnegie Hall in 1912 with his band, the Clef Club Orchestra, a band made up from members of the Clef Club, a society of Black musicians and composers founded by Europe two years earlier. The concert was a benefit for the Colored Music Settlement School and was the first time proto-jazz music was played at Carnegie Hall. Europe would perhaps be more well known today, or at least as well known as contemporaries W. C. Handy and Eubie Blake, with whom he shared a collaborator, but tragically James Reese Europe died three months after returning from France and the Great War. He was only 39.
Hope everyone has a happy and safe Fourth of July, mask up if you go out and keep your social distance to help apply the brakes to this once again accelerating pandemic.
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