Multimedia countdown: 100-days to the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice

Friday, September 21, 2018-

All that Jazz- One of America’s greatest gifts to Europe during World War I was jazz music. It’s a gift that endures today, almost a century after the Great War ended. According to historian Ryan Reft, “For Americans serving on the Western Front in Europe, jazz emerged not only as the favored soundtrack of the war, but also as a burgeoning cultural force for nascent, albeit halting and incomplete, integration.

jazzwwi 1African-American regimental outfits—such as James Reese Europe’s 369th Regimental Band—came to define and spread the new musical form across continental Europe.

Europe’s band consisted of African-American jazz musicians such as Noble Sissle, but also over a dozen Puerto Rican players recruited by Europe himself from the Caribbean island.

According to the Library of Congress, some of its earliest performances overseas occurred at the health resort Aix-les-Bains. A world-famous destination frequented by the likes of J.P. Morgan, during the war it served as a site for recovering Allied soldiers. Here Europe’s band regaled recovering troops with jazz compositions.

jazz ww1 2
James Reese Europe’s band plays jazz tunes in the courtyard of a Paris hospital that is treating wounded American soldiers. Photo: Library of Congress

“From the very first afternoon concert, when they opened with ‘Over There’ and the war-weary American soldiers responded by climbing on tables, shouting, waving their caps, and demanding that it be played again and again, the band was a great hit,” writes historian Reid Badger in his biography of Europe.

The band made waves with French citizens, too. On its way to Aix-les-Bains, it entertained a local town. The bandmaster’s baton “came down with a swoop that brought forth a soul-rousing crash,” recounted band member Noble Sissle. “[T]hen, it seemed, the whole audience began to sway. . . . The audience could stand it no longer; the ‘jazz germ’ hit them, and it seemed to find the vital spot, loosening all muscles.”

Samples of the music- Click below to hear Yelping Hound Blues by Louisiana Five and composers Al Nunez and Anton Lada.

jazz wwi 3
Sheet music from the WWI jazz song “All of No Man’s Land is Ours” From the Library of Congress

Historian Ryan Reft described this scene as it played out across France, pulling in European and American audiences alike. “Troop trains “carrying Allied soldiers from everywhere,” passing the 369th, took in the sounds as “every head came out the window when we struck up a good old Dixie tune,” remembered Sissle. Even German prisoners forgot their incarceration, abandoned their labor and began to “pat their feet to the stirring American tune.” Jazz bands like the 369th played at hospitals, rest camps and numerous other venues.”

An August 1918 performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris by the 369th so impressed U.S. General Tasker Bliss and his French counterparts that they asked the band to play in the French capital for eight more weeks. Another concert featuring the 369th at the Tuileries Gardens, along with some of the great bands from around Europe, drew 50,000 listeners. “Everywhere we gave a concert it was a riot,” Europe told an interviewer in 1919.

Samples of the music-Click below to hear Junk Man Rag by the Victor Military, Fred van Epps and composer Luckyeth Roberts. 

Band member Noble Sissle captured James Reese Europe’s and America’s cultural contribution best: “Who would have thought that [the] little U.S.A. would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn to learn how to play it?“

Jazz hellfighters2
James Reese Europe’s 369th Regimental Band—came to define and spread the new musical form across continental Europe.

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