James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra
Writing that the “good” African-American orators of the day (“spellbinders”) do for lifting up the “Race” is “nil,” this 1919 Chicago Defender editorial makes the case that the music of James Reese Europe could have a significant political impact on race relations of the time.
With the ringing down of the curtain at the Auditorium last Saturday night there closed a remarkable period of band concerts. If you were not fortunate enough to attend you missed a rare treat. This band had made a wonderful record with the American expeditionary forces in France and with its jazz music had proved a source of great entertainment wherever it went. When it returned to the United States it was given a great ovation by the people of New York City, and Chicago found it equal to advance notice. It has all the artistic finish of any band that has invaded these parts in many years. We doubt seriously that [conductor Giuseppe] Creatore at his best could have furnished a better entertainment. The audiences were highly responsive and rewarded each number with the most spirited applause. The closing number of the program, “In No Man’s Land,” in which the house was thrown into darkness and all the noises of the battlefield reproduced, furnished a thriller that was a fitting finale to a splendid evening’s entertainment.
We hope the swing of Europe and his band around the country will be nation wide. The most prejudiced enemy of our Race could not sit through an evening with Europe without coming away with a changed viewpoint. For he is compelled in spite of himself to see us in a new light. It is a well-known fact that the white people view us largely from the standpoint of the cook, porter, and waiter, and his limited opportunities are responsible for much of the distorted opinion held concerning us. Europe and his band are worth more to our Race than a thousand speeches from so-called Race orators and uplifters. Mere wind-jamming has never given any race material help. It may be entertaining in a way to recite to audiences of our own people in a flamboyant style the doings of the Race, but the spellbinder’s efforts, being confined almost exclusively to audiences of our own people, is of as much help in properly presenting our cause to those whom we desire most to reach as a man trying to lift himself by pulling at his own bootstraps. Experience has shown that most of our spellbinders are in it for what there is in it. The good they do is nil.
Europe and his band are demonstrating what our people can do in a field where the results are bound to be of the greatest benefit. He has the white man’s ear because he is giving the white man something new. He is meeting a popular demand and in catering to this love of syncopated music he is jazzing away the barriers of prejudice.
James Reese Europe (22 February 1881 – 9 May 1919) was an American ragtime and early jazz bandleader, arranger, and composer. He was the leading figure on the African-American music scene of New York City in the 1910s. Eubie Blake called him the “Martin Luther King of music.”
James Reese Europe, “On Patrol in No Man’s Land”