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Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters

Serious have partnered with the Kennedy Centre in Washington to bring streaming of the ground-breaking event that we co-commissioned in 2018, at no cost, from 5pm GMT on Friday 22 January, running through until the end of February. Watch the film below.

Jason Moran creates an original response to the extraordinary story of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters - bravery, race issues, and the explosive arrival of jazz in war-torn Europe

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.

James Reese Europe, 1919

The renowned composer, pianist and visual artist Jason Moran – ‘shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz’ (Rolling Stone) – celebrates and reflects on the legacy of James Reese Europe (1880-1919), an iconic figure in the evolution of African-American music who introduced France to the sound of jazz in the closing year of World War 1.

In this multi-dimensional performance, members of Moran’s long-established trio, The Bandwagon (described by the NY Times as ‘the best rhythm section in jazz’) perform new music by Jason Moran inspired by James Reese Europe’s original compositions.

His most recent UK performances included a UK tour of this project, as well as 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 Royal Festival Hall. 

Harlem Hellfighters was the last Serious production led by John Cumming, who worked with Luke Macpherson to create and tour the project. For more information about John Cumming's life, click here

The project also has a dedicated website/blog at – jasonmoranharlemhellfighters.com

Background

On New Year’s Day 1918, James Reese Europe – an iconic figure in the evolution of African-American music – landed in Brest with the 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment. Alongside 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.

Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, the 93rd Division's 369th Infantry Regiment from New York first garnered notoriety for its world-class band, led by acclaimed composer and bandleader James Reese Europe. Made up of top musicians from the United States and Puerto Rico, the band famously played a swinging, yet initially unrecognisable, version of the Marseillaise upon disembarking for the first time on French soil.

The 369th received equal acclaim for its performance on the field of battle. Two soldiers of the 369th, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first American soldiers to receive the French Croix de Guerre. The regiment served for 191 days and ceded no ground to enemy forces. While they returned to the United States as national heroes, The Harlem Hellfighters had not been permitted to serve under American command during their time on the Western Front. Throughout 1918, the regiment served under French command, wearing French uniforms. Following a posthumous award of a Purple Heart in 1996, in 2015 President Obama awarded the Medal of Honour to Henry Johnson.

On 17 February 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. James Reese Europe himself came to an untimely end later that year, murdered by one of his fellow band members, widely reported across the USA.

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

James Reese Europe

JASON MORAN – THE HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, 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. Producing partners are Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, and the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany and Renfrewshire Leisure.