James Reese Europe is not a household name, but in the early 1900s, he was one of New York’s most prominent African American bandleaders.
In 1910 he organized the Clef Club (later the Tempo Club), a gathering place, union, and booking agency for African-American artists, who were ignored by the American Federation of Musicians. The Club made history when it performed Negro Music at Carnegie Hall to benefit the Colored Music Settlement School.
Also, in 1913, Europe’s orchestra was the first to make phonograph records for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and his syncopated sound preceded the jazz age.
Lesser known but equally important, is Europe’s decision to participate in the Great War (WWI) and recruit Puerto Rican soldiers and musicians for the Fifteenth Regiment (Colored) of the New York National Guard (later the Harlem Hellfighters) military band. In my view, this Reese Europe as a racial trailblazer and an honorary Boricua Pioneer.
Soon after Europe enlisted, Commander, William Hayward approached him about organizing “the best military band in the world.” According to Hayward, “He (Europe) explained to me that there were a lot of really good instrument musicians in Porto Rico. He had corresponded and found out about it.”
Because of Jim Crow Laws, which legalized segregation in the States, Europe had difficulty recruiting African-American musicians with formal training. At the time most Black musicians received musical training through army, orphanage and other publicly supported bands and had less access to decent instruments and funding.
Europe requested and received permission to expand the size of the band from 28 to 44 musicians. Also, in addition to forming a successful military band, he wanted to gain support for the National Negro Orchestra, which he planned to lead after the war.
Also, the Jones -Shafroth Act – also known as the Jones Act of Puerto Rico, granted U.S. citizenship to anyone born on the island on or before April 25, 1898. Europe concluded that in Puerto Rico he could obtain recruits and musicians who were eligible for the draft.
Europe arrived in San Juan on May 2. 1917. During the voyage, he received word that the 15th Regiment had been ordered to Camp Peekskill for field exercises and rifle practice and he was ordered to return quickly. In total, Europe spent three days in San Juan and according to Reid Badger, returned with 13 recruits, “including former members of Manuel Tizol’s municipal band, four performers with the Jolly Boys and several ‘scions of illustrious musical families.'”
Sixto Nieves Benitez – Tuba
Jose Froilan Jimenez (Jiminez) – Euphonium
Nicolas (Nicholas) Vazquez – Euphonium
Arturo B. Ayala – Clarinet
Gregorio Felix Delgado – Clarinet
Antonio Gonzalez Carcel – Clarinet
Pablo Fuentes Mas – Bassoon
Rafael I. Duchesne Mondriguez – Band Sergeant, Clarinet
Eleuterio (Elenterio) Melendez – Mellophone
Jose Rivera Rosa – Tuba
Genaro (Janero) Torres – Clarinet
Seferino (Severino) Hernandez – Saxophone
Eligio (Elige) Rios – Clarinet
Rafael Hernandez – Band Sergeant, Trombone
Jesus Hernandez – Clarinet
Cruz, Leonard – Trumpet
Santiago Sanchez y Colon – Clarinet
Given the fact that Europe was not fluent in Spanish, nor familiar with the island or its musicians it’s logical to assume that he had assistance. Over the years historians and writers have speculated about who the “Puerto Rican Connection” might be but there is no definitive proof.
According to Donald Thompson and Martha Moreno de Schwartz, “It is clear that the effective recruiting of musicians had already taken place in Puerto Rico, and in fact (Noble) Sissle speaks of Europe using a prepared list and having to rush back with men he had not had the time to pick. The pre-selection of candidates would have been carried out by Manuel Tizol, conductor of the San Juan Municipal Band and an orchestra contractor already known in New York City.”
Author, educator Basilio Serrano theorizes: “The New Amsterdam Music Association (NAMA) awarded the tubist, bassist Rafael (Ralph) Escudero a scholarship to study in New York (1912). Escudero was active with NAMA and played in Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra. Through Escudero, Europe learned about the prowess of Puerto Rican musicians.”Also, in 1917 agents for the Victor Talking Machine Company stopped in San Juan as part of a recording tour of South America and the Caribbean. Several numbers of Manuel Tizol’s band and an orchestra led by Rafael Hernandez ended up on Victor’s acetates. Since Europe also recorded for Victor, it’s possible that he learned about Tizol, and Hernandez through the company grapevine. Another source claims that Europe’s Syncopated Society Orchestra, which accompanied the dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle, was comprised of “Black and Puerto Rican musicians.” Theories abound, but the “Puerto Rican Connection” remains a mystery.
At the front, the New York Fifteenth was attached to the French Army and became the 369th Regiment band, which toured France and performed military music and standard band repertory for ceremonial duties, visiting dignitaries and concerts for the French and American troops. But what garnered the most praise was the band’s ability to improvise and swing.
According to Serrano, “Some music historians have written that the 369th Regiment band introduced jazz to France and the rest of Europe during World War I. However, others would posit that the syncopated music that the 369th introduced may better be described as a hybrid evolving from ragtime to early jazz. This is important to note because it implies that the Puerto Rican participation influenced jazz from its early period.”
In total, the regiment spent 15 months at the front, distinguished themselves in battle and received the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest honor. After his return home in February 1919, Europe stated, “I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that Negros 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.”
AFTER THE WAR
Shortly after the war, Europe’s plans to tour the nation with a “civilian version of the Hellfighters” was cut short when he was murdered by a band member (1919).
Fortunately, we have the Pathé recordings (1919), which document the music of the 369th Hellfighters Band (the liner-notes indicate that the Puerto Ricans participated in the sessions).
After Europe’s death, the Puerto Rican contingent disbursed. Some returned to the island, others performed with prominent jazz bands including the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, C. Luckyeth (Lucky) Roberts, Sidney Bechet, The Southern Syncopated Orchestra and the Noble Sissle Orchestra among others.
Without question, the most famous Puerto Rican recruit is the multi-instrumentalist and prolific composer, Rafael Hernandez. After the war, he joined stride pianist C. Luckeyeth Roberts’ Band and started a record company with his sister Victoria. Also, he formed the Trio Borinquen and participated in numerous recording sessions. During the 1930s he lived in Mexico and briefly visited and performed in Havana. Herandez is fondly remembered as “El Jibarito” and his compositions are revered throughout Latin America and played the world over.
Author Ned Sublette sums up the “bicultural sophistication” of Puerto Ricans: “As soon as Puerto Ricans were Americans, they were helping transform the music. From 1917 there is no African American music in New York in which Puerto Ricans don’t figure. They have been a natural part of the jazz in New York since before cats were taking improvised solos, and as the ‘Latin jazz’ hybrid developed, they provided critical links between the African American and Cuban styles because they were the ones who understood them both; and they made them their own – in their own way. The unique bicultural sophistication of the Puerto Rican is a broad topic – but it can’t be left unmentioned in talking about the development of the music in New York.”
With the exception of authors such as Ruth Glasser, Basilio Serrano, Donald Thompson, Martha Moreno de Schwartz and a handful of others, the Puerto Rican contingent has not received the recognition it deserves. Nevertheless, James Reese Europe’s decision to recruit Puerto Rican musicians, unite “brothers of color” and spread the “jazz germ” throughout Europe qualifies him as a Boricua Pioneer.
- Badger, Reid – A Life in Ragtime; A Biography of James Reese Europe (Oxford University Press, 1995)
- Glasser Ruth – My Music is My Flag; Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities 1917-1940 (University of California Press, 1995
- Peña, Thomas – Interview with Basilio Serrano (www.jazzdelapena.com)
- Peress, Maurice (2004). Dvořák to Duke Ellington. New York: Oxford University Press
- Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz; Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz 1900-1939 (iUniverse,2015)
- Sublette, Ned – Cuba, and its Music; From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press, 2004)
- Thompson, Donald and Martha Moreno de Schwartz – James Reese Europe’s Hellfighters Band and the Puerto Rican Connection (Parcha Press, 2008)