Jason Moran - The Harlem Hellfighters

Abbey Close


On New Year’s Day 1918, James Reese Europe – an iconic figure in the evolution of African-American music – landed in Brest with the Harlem Hellfighters. As well as their achievements in combat, Europe’s crack military music ensemble popularised the new spirit of jazz to a war-torn French nation fascinated with black culture.  And this is but the beginning of a story that continues to fascinate and intrigue.

A century later, composer, pianist and visual artist Jason Moran – himself a major and innovative force in today’s jazz – celebrates the legacy of a hero of Black music, in a multi-dimensioned reflection on the impact of the African-American presence in Europe in the closing years of WW1, and its resonance both in Europe and in the USA, with contributions from John Akomfrah, and visual materials from acclaimed cinematographer Bradford Young, in a new project specially commissioned for the final year of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.  

The Harlem Hellfighters story provides the genesis of the extraordinary impact of African-American music on Europe and the Americas, and a century of profound cultural and political change that is still evolving.

The performing ensemble will include members of Moran’s long-established trio, The Bandwagon, and a group of brass and wind players drawn from today’s richly talented new generation of British musicians.  Moran himself has created projects that have offered a profound insight into the creative world of key figures in jazz history, Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. His most recent UK performances included a two-night residency at Tate Modern with his long-term collaborator, performance artist Joan Jonas, and a duet with fellow pianist Robert Glasper at a sold-out Festival Hall.

On February 17 1919, the 369th Infantry Regiment famously marched up Fifth Avenue and into Harlem before some 250,000 onlookers. A spirit of determination, inspired by the war, surged throughout black America.

W.E.B. Du Bois voiced such sentiment in the May 1919 Crisis editorial ‘Returning Soldiers’, declaring, "We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why."   Words that echo down the decades…

Jazz may be American music, but it is African American Music

(James Reese Europe)

James Reese Europe

A seminal figure in evolution of black music, Europe acted as  MD for Vernon and Irene Castle and recorded in 13/14 for Victor (Castle volunteered for British Air Service in 1915).  

Attached to French Army as 369th. Regiment, documented as marching across No Man’s Land playing Memphis Blues.  One concert was later described by band member Noble Sissle as having "... started ragtimitis in France".  The band recorded in France and again in the USA after the War.  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”.

His musical associates and band members included a number who continued to make a mark in the evolution of jazz and black music – vocalist/bnand;leader Noble Sissle, pianist Eurbie Blake, bassist Pops Foster, trombonist Herb Fleming.  Interesting to note that a number of band members have latin names – there was a significant Puerto Rican presence in the army.  

Europe was described by Eubie Blake as “the Martin Luther King of Music”.

James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin, Serious and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, with support from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany.

  • Jazz Festival Berlin