More than a few people have commented on the fact that my musical tastes are a little old-fashioned, but here’s a piece that’s a bit old even by my standards. It’s by a band from the immediately pre-Jazz era called Jim Europe’s Society Orchestra. Led by James Reese Europe this band pre-dated the much more famous Paul Whiteman band in popularity, playing at the Carnegie Hall for example long before Whiteman’s ever did which, for a group of black musicians, was quite remarkable at a time of racial segregation in the United States.
When World War 1 started, Jim Europe enlisted in the 369th Infantry Regiment, which fought with immense distinction on the Western Front. The regiment, comprised of African-American and Puerto Rican soldiers, was dubbed the “Men of Bronze” by the French army and as the “Hellfighters” by the German army, on account of their legendary toughness. In the latter stages of the war, Jim Europe formed a military band to which he gave the name “The Harlem Hellfighters”. He died in 1919, after being stabbed in the neck by one of his own musicians.
This particular record was made over a century ago, on December 29 1913. As you might expect, the recording quality is not particularly good (to put it mildly) but it always strikes me as absolutely amazing that we can hear anything at all that was recorded so long ago. The line-up is very unusual by modern standards: two pianos, five banjo mandolins, three violins, clarinet, cornet, and a drummer. That’s on this particular tune. No personnel information is available except that it is certainly Jim Europe himself who delivers the encouraging shouts.
It’s pretty basic stuff from a musical point of view, in that everyone plays in unison and there’s no improvisation or any other development of the tune, but it’s certainly a performance full of energy and fun as well as a valuable piece of Jazz prehistory. The tune is Downhome Rag, which was written sometime in 1913 by Wilbur C Sweatman, is still performed by traditional jazz bands today. But not like this!Follow @telescoper