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Accueil > 03, 2018 > Quand soudain, le jazz ! / Suddenly, jazz ! > Black US Army Bands in World War I

Black US Army Bands in World War I

Les orchestres noirs de l’armée américaine pendant la 1re Guerre Mondiale

Peter M. Lefferts


The story of how James Reese Europe and the “Harlem Hell Fighters Band" introduced jazz to Europeans during World War I is famous, but the contributions of African American musicians in over two dozen other US military bands were comparable. Overseas, these bands played the jazz of Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington as well as that of New York. A number of them toured the States after the war to capitalize on their fame and the surging popularity of jazz, playing in large concert halls to curious audiences eager to hear this new kind of music.

This essay is a digest of a longer document, Black US Army Bands and Their Bandmasters in World War I, whose third version, with full citations, was put on-line in April 2018 at https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/musicfacpub/67/

L’histoire du rôle qu’a joué James Reese Europe et son « Harlem Hell Fighters Band » dans l’introduction du jazz en Europe pendant la première Guerre Mondiale est bien connue. Mais la contribution des autres musiciens africains américains engagés dans les quelques vingt-cinq orchestres militaires américains, pour être moins fameuse, n’en fut pas moins déterminante. Outre-Atlantique, ces orchestres jouaient le jazz de Kansas City, de Chicago, de Philadelphie, de Baltimore et de Washington tout comme celui de New York. Après la guerre, de retour au pays, quelques uns s’engagent dans des tournées nationales, tirant parti de leur succès et de la popularité croissante du jazz en jouant dans des grandes salles de concert pour des publics de curieux, avide d’entendre cette nouvelle forme de musique.

Cet essai est l’abrégé d’un document plus long intitulé « Les orchestres noirs de l’armée américaine pendant la 1re Guerre Mondiale », dont la troisième version (avec les notes de bas de pages et les annexes) a été mise en ligne en avril 2018 sur https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/musicfacpub/67/

Texte intégral

Twenty seven new black army regiments served in the U.S. Army in World War I. Each had a band that entertained servicemen and civilians in Europe and America not only with traditional marches and concert fare, but also with minstrel shows and revues, and with the latest flavor of ragtime music, which they called jazz. Their story provides a context—including colleagues and competitors—for the wartime and immediate post-war accomplishments of James Reese (Jim) Europe. The story of how Jim Europe and the “Harlem Hell Fighters Band” introduced jazz to Europeans during World War I is one of the most famous set pieces in American music history, and his murder shortly after their return to the states is one of its great tragedies. There is no denying his fame and accomplishments, but Lieutenant Europe was not an isolated figure. Rather, he was first among equals. He was one of a number of freshly minted black U.S. Army band leaders, some of whom also had been famous civilian musicians in their own right, who brought large and small ensemble jazz to France and England in 1918-1919. By November 11, 1918 the regiments had been abroad for anywhere from one to eleven months, and in some cases their bands had never left the side of the troops. After the Armistice, bands other than Jim Europe’s began to be summoned away from their regiments for concerts and ceremonial duties, in special assignments that were a welcome diversion from the wait to embark for home. A number of these black bands toured the States after the war to capitalize swiftly on their moment of fame and the surging popularity of the new jazz music.

Of those 27 regiments of African Americans, 11 were combat regiments, and the remainder were 16 Pioneer Infantry Regiments. Pioneer Regiments consisted of non-combatant black troops who worked as stevedores, dug trenches, graves, and latrines, and built hospitals, roads, bridges, and railroad lines. In addition, other overseas units of the U. S. Army’s Service of Supply and Quartermaster Corps were manned by African Americans. All of these new units established bands that were conducted by black conductors, and music from all of these black soldiers was heard and enjoyed. None can be overlooked. Indeed, a U.S. newspaper article with a wonderful title (“French Go Supperless to Hear Yankee Bands”) mentions that “one of the most popular and best-known American bands in the Service of Supplies in France is composed of the negro stevedores.”

Military bands varied considerably in size, quality, and capabilities. The smaller, weaker ensembles were barely able to scratch out a march or accompany military drills, while better bands might work from a playbook of mainly standard light classical and popular fare. Intensive recruiting by an ambitious colonel with a band fund and an able conductor might result in a flexible, professional-quality ensemble able to play both classical scores and popular songs, and to mount and accompany fully-staged minstrel and variety shows. Bandsmen could put down their horns to pick up banjos and violins, to act and dance, or to sing in quartets, double quartets, and choruses. Before shipping out, the military bands paraded and concertized in the States both for the troops in camp and for local civilian populations. For all of these bands, their ability to play the newest hot ragtime idiom called jazz created the most excitement.

 Chicago, New York and Washington

The history of the black World War I bands begins in Chicago. It was Chicago, rather than New York City, whose black community had the greater heritage of military music in America. This requires some explaining. At the declaration of war in April 1917 there were just two standing African-American regiment-level National Guard bands, the 8th Illinois of Chicago and the 15th of New York. The “Old Eighth,” considerably the senior of the two units, had been formed more than a quarter century before. Its nationally recognized band, led at the outbreak of war by George Dulf, was a superlative outfit and an aspirational model for all the new bands. Chicago was a great jazz town, and its local black musicians could play “genuine jazz music, such as is only found in Chicago.” Unsurprisingly, then, the band of the Old Eighth was comfortable playing jazz ; for instance, the regiment swung into camp in Texas to “a tune that was freighted with homesickness for Chicago troops […]. It was just the ’Jaz band’ of the Eighth Illinois infantry making light the steps to camp for the Negro doughboys.” The regiment was brought into war service in the fall of 1917 and re-designated as the 370th. It trained first in Texas, where the band led the Great Parade of the Eighth Regiment in Houston in November 1917, and then in Virginia, where the band led the Washington Birthday parade of thousands of soldiers through Norfolk in February 1918.

From the New York area, the black entertainment industry yielded up some of its finest talent to the army, eventually staffing four celebrated bands, those of the 15th NY National Guard under Jim Europe and Eugene Mikell, the 350th Field Artillery under Tim Brymn, the 367th Infantry under E. E. Thompson, and the 807th Pioneer Infantry under Will Vodery. As in Chicago, the story must begin with the National Guard. The second of the nation’s two black National Guard regiments, the 15th N.Y., was established on July 1, 1916. Its first Chief Musician was E. E. Thompson, “the black Sousa,” a veteran of the Caribbean British military band world who left it for a highly successful career in the New York entertainment industry. Thompson led the band in its first full season, from late summer 1916 to mid April 1917.

The Colonel of the 15th N.Y. was jealous of the band of the more senior black National Guard regiment, the 8th Illinois. In December 1916, he turned to one of his newly-commissioned officers, James Reese Europe, to help elevate the level of Thompson’s band. Jim Europe had enthusiastically enrolled in the National Guard in September 1916 as a private, and not as a bandsman. He was rapidly promoted to sergeant and then given an officer’s commission in December as a first lieutenant. In early 1917, Europe mounted a vigorous funding and recruitment campaign for the band.

Just after the US declaration of war in April 1917, the 15th N.Y. was federalized, and Thompson took the opportunity to step aside from the band. Jim Europe, despite all he was doing and would do for the band, could not now become its official Band Leader. This would have required an unacceptable demotion to non-commissioned officer status. Instead, Eugene Mikell received the appointment as sergeant Band Leader. Europe nonetheless became ex officio the band’s star conductor and musical director. For the next two years, it was referred to as Jim Europe’s band, and in front of it he became a major international celebrity.

Several additional combat regiments were formed in the New York area, including the 350th Field Artillery and the 367th Infantry. The band of the 350th was led by the prominent composer, band leader, and colleague of Jim Europe, Tim Brymn. His regimental colonel also wanted the band to be the best in the service and worked to raise a fund to support an ensemble of 100 men. Brymn said he brought a band of 70 overseas, and he wrote home from France in October 1918 to say “My band is now increased to one hundred musicians, as we are considered A-1 in the army.” Indeed, it was widely reported to be the single largest musical unit serving in World War I. When President Wilson opened a nationwide Red Cross campaign in May 1918, the kickoff was a huge parade in Manhattan led by Brymn’s 350th regiment band. The president could not resist moving to its music and got out of his limousine to walk the route. One newspaper headline said “He Heard Music and Just Had to Walk,” and the president was quoted as saying, “I simply must march to that music ; it is irresistible.”

The band of the 367th was put into the hands of none other than E. E. Thompson. Thompson aspired to make his group one of the best in the army, and they “made a most favorable impression.” Variety commented that “many thought it a better musical organization than the band Jimmy Europe formed and which is now in France.” After a major parade through Manhattan on March 23, 1918, upon their arrival in Harlem the band had enough pep left to delight the crowd with ragtime, and out on Long Island at Camp Upton, it entertained the troupes with tremendously popular stage shows.

At the end of July 1918, the 807th Pioneer Infantry regiment was formed in New York. Its Band Leader was the great theatrical composer-arranger Will Vodery. Within just three months this ensemble reached a noteworthy level of excellence, and the “band won fame, second only to that of Lieut. Jim Europe’s Fifteenth Hellfighters.” Further, “at least one commanding officer pronounced them ‘the best band in the A. E. F.’.” The Band Secretary, Corporal Albert A. Smith, was not shy about declaring that “We established ourselves as one of the premiere bands in the A. E. F.” Such renown is due to the fact that Vodery had on his roster many East Coast professionals. From his band of 55, he could break out a pit orchestra and minstrel show whose personnel totaled 30 names—about 20 instrumentalists and 10 men who put down their horns to act and sing. More than half of these 30 can be traced as professional actors and musicians in civilian life both before and after the war.

The Baltimore-Washington area provided a great bands from the 368th Infantry. It was led by Alfred Jack Thomas, who made a big effort to staff it with experienced musicians. Jim Europe, in fact, thought the 368th of A. J. Thomas was the best band in the A. E. F. By this he probably meant that it was the best of the bands at performing serious music, and we know that “the men say they prefer to play classical pieces.” It could, however, split off a terrific freestanding jazz band led by its colorful drum major, Edgar A. Landin. An imposing 6’ 4” former Philadelphia policeman, Landin was hailed as “The Ragtime Baton-Twirler,” “The Great Cake-Walking Bandleader and His Jazz Band,” and “The Sultan of Syncopation and His Gallavantin’ Jazz Band.” While in the states, the band was especially busy in the spring of 1918 in the Liberty Loan Drive. To open this effort, President Woodrow Wilson attended a Baltimore troop review and parade in April where Drum Major Landin’s antics were a hit with the dour president. Landin immediately became a significant national celebrity, “The Dusky Drum Major That Made the President Laugh.”

 Service in France

Overseas, the bands stayed close to their regiments, playing for the troops in the trenches and for the men at rest immediately to the rear. Away from the combat zone, they performed at military ceremonies, at public open-air concerts for civilians, at private soirees for generals and politicians and royalty, in music halls and hospitals, and in Leave Areas. While James Reese Europe’s band has received the greatest attention of any black U.S. Army band, each of the other black regimental bands is worthy of further scrutiny than it has received to date. However, much of their wartime activity is extremely hard to trace. In the combat zone, when they were performing—rather than ducking artillery shells and helping the wounded—they were not going to get much if any press coverage on account of the need for secrecy about their whereabouts “Somewhere in France.” Such accounts as do turn up in the US press were printed months after the fact due to censorship and delays in the mail. Mentioned below are the principal wartime anecdotes that can be gleaned, especially from U.S. newspaper articles and concert advertisements, about the most prominent black regimental bands.

 The 15th and The 807th

The 15th N.Y. spent the longest time abroad of any black regiment—a total of thirteen months—for ten of which its band was under Eugene Mikell’s baton. He had substantially more podium time with the band than did Jim Europe. However, it was the total of three months of concertizing away from the front by Europe and the “Hell Fighters’ Band” that drew such extensive attention at the time. These three months include a month in the rest area at Aix-les-Bains from mid February to mid March 1918, with elaborate concert tours by train to and from that town. Then the 15th N.Y. was formally re-designated the 369th Infantry and was sent to the front under French command. Jim Europe went with the fighters. He was away from the headquarters band for almost six months, from mid March to August 1918, to lead his machine gun company in combat. Europe rejoined the band in time for two more months of concerts in Paris from mid August to mid October 1918. There the band’s initial appearance was at the Allied Peace Conference in Paris on August 18. This signal event was followed by eight weeks visiting hospitals and rest camps around the city.

Europe’s group is remembered today principally for its instrumental performances and for the singing of Noble Sissle, but it mounted stage shows as well. For instance, during its first month away from the regiment, “The fine Army band of American Negro musicians came over from Aix-les-Bains and put Chambéry in a whirl of excitement. A concert was given in the theater under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A., and the house was crowded to the doors and every seat in the orchestra occupied by American soldiers. A minstrel show was part of the programme, and the two end men, in traditional minstrel togs, cracked jokes, danced, and sang songs, with a chorus and band to support them. The wild applause of the audience worked the actors into a perfect frenzy of cake walks, hand-springs, and grotesque gestures, and the curtain dropped on a roar of excitement from soldiers and actors alike.”

The record of the band for the many months under Mikell is less easy to trace. However, Mikell did valuable service, and in June, 1918 he was honored in his own right at a ceremony where he received a baton presented by a French regimental bandmaster. On July 4, 1918, in one of its most prestigious engagements under his leadership, Mikell led the band in a concert at General Gouraud’s headquarters in Chalons-sur-Marne. In mid 1918, Mikell enjoyed the army’s boost in rank for bandleaders to Second Lieutenant. The band was returned to its regiment and pulled back from public engagements after its stint in Paris, keeping a low profile for its last three and a half months overseas.

The other preeminent black regimental band of World War I, Will Vodery’s 807th Pioneer Infantry Band, began its overseas service with a taste of combat : “when we arrived in a certain part of France we were carrying ammunition to the front under fire.” Its “climactic success” really began, though, when the band was detached from its regiment to become the First Army Headquarters Battalion Post Band. This was the most distinguished and lengthiest assignment undertaken by any of the black regimental bands. The opportunity was created when, in October 1918, General John J. Pershing turned over personal command of the million-man US First Army to General Hunter Liggett. Naturally, Liggett then needed his own headquarters band, and a competition was set up for the position, which was won when Vodery’s band beat out four other (white) regimental bands. The band of the 807th transferred to First Army Headquarters on November 13, 1918, and was based first at Souilly near Verdun and then at Bar-sur-Aube in the countryside southeast of Paris, close by to Pershing’s own headquarters at Chaumont. Vodery’s men served as First Army Headquarters Band for five months. Late in April 1919, he and the band were sent back to their regiment, which was now at Bourg, Haute-Marne.

A few references indicate the caliber of event for which Vodery’s band provided entertainment in this prestigious and highly visible assignment. It represented the American Army at a reception for French President M. Poincaré and Mme. Poincaré at Verdun on November 20, 1918, when Poincaré was travelling to join Marshalls Foch and Petain for the ceremonial entries into the liberated towns of Alsace-Lorraine. Poincaré said “it was the first colored band he had ever heard and its music was astounding.” On December 5, the band played while General Liggett decorated eight aviator aces at Souilly. On January 8, it played at the services in memory of Theodore Roosevelt at which General Liggett and General Drum and staff were present (Roosevelt had died on January 6). Further, during January the band played at one of the Catholic Cathedrals, and it also played privately on January 19 for the Prince of Monaco at his château, on which occasion “the Prince expressed particular pleasure in Negro music.” And on March 21, they played for Gen. Pershing, his staff and guests, the king and queen of Belgium, at Lignol, the château that was Lieut. Gen. Liggett’s headquarters near Bar-sur-Aube. On April 6, they played for Gen. Pershing at Bar-sur-Aube. And they also made tours of base hospitals, of course. Vodery’s outfit was very much a theater troupe as well as a concert band, and it could mount at least two different stage shows. A description of one of their shows performed in Bar-sur-Aube in January mentions comedy sketches, a saxophone quartet, a comedian, and a song-and-dance routine.

 Other Bands : Combat Infantry Bands

What of the other black band ? From the combat regiments, Tim Brymn’s band of the 350th achieved the most significant recognition. Before the big fall offensive, General Pershing ordered the band to make a tour of the entire front, for it is known that music has more to do with sustaining the morale of the soldiers than almost any other medium. Then, returning to camp and its regiment, the band was at hand in the bloody Argonne and Metz drives, and by Brymn’s account, at one point they had to put down their instruments to fight. They served at the battles of Epley, Pontamousson, and Marbach. Croix de guerre winners included six bandsmen, among them Sergeant Heyder, clarinet, Bobby Jones, percussion, and Corporal Russel Smith, cornet. In spite of intensive fighting which never let up, Brymn kept his musicians in constant rehearsal. Further, “they served their country by driving ammunition trucks to the front line trenches, as well as by inspiring their comrades by their music.”

After the Armistice, Brymn’s band won recognition as “the only colored aggregation of musicians to appear before President Wilson and General Pershing by special request during the tour of the battle front by the country’s Chief Executive prior to the opening of the peace conference.” And, “when President Wilson visited France last Christmas time, he expressed a desire to hear the Black Devil Band, and when they played for his entertainment at the sector which he visited at holiday time, the Chief Executive hailed the organization as the peer of all colored aggregations.” Away from the front, in concert, they played special engagements in Nancy, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Brest, and other cities. In addition, we know that they played for three weeks at a base hospital in Paris and at General Pershing’s great review of the 92nd Division together with President Wilson on January 28 at Le Mans. Further, the memoirs of drum major Willie “the Lion” Smith mention a visit of the band to the rest area at Aix-les-Bains.

The famed African American activist and author W. E. B. Du Bois went over to France shortly after the Armistice to be an observer at the Versailles Peace Conference. In early January 1919, Du Bois visited the 92nd Division in the Marbache sector, in Maron on the Moselle River below Metz, just west of Nancy. In a famous essay, he described the impact of Brymn’s band in evocative language :

“In France […] Tim Brimm was playing by the town pump. Tim Brimm and the bugles of Harlem blared in the little streets of Maron in far Lorraine. The tiny streets were seas of mud. Dank mist and rain sifted through the cold air above the blue Moselle. Soldiers—soldiers everywhere—black soldiers, boys of Washington, Alabama, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Wild and sweet and wooing leapt the strains upon the air. French children gazed in wonder—women left their washing. Up in the window stood a black Major, a Captain, a Teacher, and I—with tears behind our smiling eyes. Tim Brimm was playing by the town-pump.”

George Dulf’s great Chicago band of the Old 8th Illinois, now redesignated as the 370th, was particularly famed for its experience close to the action. On October 13, troops of Chicago’s 370th were the first to enter “the French city of Laon when that fortress fell after four years of German occupation […] [and] Bandmaster Dulf led the band that marched at the head of the regiment into Laon […] playing French national airs as it marched, and finally breaking into ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, then ‘Yankee Doodle’, and finally ‘Dixie’.” Then, in the drive on the Rhine in November it was the only band to go over the top (at Metz), and it “played ‘Illinois’ in the very teeth of German guns.” Another often-told anecdote recounts how they held a concert in what was supposed to be a quiet sector, at Bar-le-Duc, near Verdun, while an unexpected airplane battle raged overhead between French and German aviators, and it rained down shrapnel. In later November, in ceremonies after the Armistice, they played at the particular request of Marshalls Foch and Petain and General Pershing. They also gave a special concert at Brest for General Pershing before he sailed for the States.

The experiences of the other combat regiment bands were similar, as brief anecdotes about the 365th, 367th and 368th will show. A band member from the 365th regiment wrote an account of their whereabouts, explaining that just before the unit “went over the top” with the band, doing hospital service under shell fire, they were billeted at Soisy, about four kilometers from Pont a Mousson, which is twenty-seven kilometers from Metz. They moved up to Atton for the attack, and then returned to Pont a Mousson. They moved again on December 5 to another (unnamed) town where they stayed for a month, and then billeted at Ambrières in January before embarkation at Brest. The bands of the 367th under E. E. Thompson and the 368th under A. Jack Thomas did not generate many references back in the U.S. to their activities while abroad. We do, however, have a photo of the band of the 367th serenading Generals Pershing and Gouraud in the summer of 1918. And we know that the band of the 368th played concerts “in Toul, Saizerais, Nancy, Brest, Le Mans and other places,” and was also on the scene for combat on three fronts—in the Vosges, in the Argonne forest, and at Metz. These bandsmen also had to put down their instruments to become stretcher bearers and first aid men, and to bury the dead.

 Other Bands : The Pioneer Infantry Bands

The African American Pioneer Infantry regiments sailed from August through October 1918. Arriving so much later than the combat regiments, they also stayed on the continent much later—deep into the summer months of 1919—to clean up the debris and scars of war. As the combat regiments pulled back to the port areas and returned to the states in February and March 1919, demands on the Pioneer Infantry regimental bands increased both to entertain the remaining troops and to serve on ceremonial occasions. Vodery’s great band of the 807th was discussed above. A half dozen more referred to below (the bands of the 803rd, 805th, 806th, 808th, 814th, 815th, and 816th) have left some significant trace of their musical excellence and overseas activity.

The Chicago-based band of the 803rd was “eventually detached from their regiment and sent touring […] entertaining everybody from Alsace-Lorraine to the Mediterranean.” It played at a reception for the civilian population of Challes-les-Eux on March 12, 1919, and it was photographed in Chambery on March 18, 1919 while on special duty in the leave area. They were a tremendous hit. “These men gave us so much joy and entertainment in their playing that not only did the Y make efforts to have them retained permanently in the Leave Area, but the French people were quite as eager to have them, and showered praises and flowers on them when at last they were ordered back to their regiment.” Its extensive tours throughout France made this band one of the most popular in the A.E.F. and allowed it to claim the mantle of “the best band in France.”

Kansas City and its jazz traditions enter the story on account of two Pioneer Infantry regiments, the 805th and 806th, that were organized there. The band of the 805th was in residence at Château de Chehery, Chatel Chehery, from November 1918 to May 1919. It had a large number of skilled musicians and variety show actors, and the regiment “became famous overnight” for their “Bear Cat Entertainers” show and for a section of the band that was spun off as a Jazz Orchestra. Their Colonel boasted that his Bear Cats had “the best Jazz band in France,” “the best vaudeville show in the A. E. F.,” and the best baseball team of any outfit in France. From February to May 1919 they entertained distinguished visitors at Chatel Chehery and went on the road to many French villages around the Argonne-Meuse area, with a Kansas City professional comedian, actor and singer, Sergeant Billy Higgins, as their principal soloist.

The band of the 806th, too, laid claim to be “now the best band in France.” Stationed with the regiment in early 1919 at Montrichard, just east of Tours, the band was sent to Paris by April and stayed there until returning to the States in August. An ensemble of 32 pieces, it was remembered by its conductor as playing light classical selections like the overtures of Franz von Suppé. In May and June, the men of the 806th regiment helped to build Pershing Stadium, and then “the 806th Pioneer Infantry Band played at the Columbus Stadium in Paris, giving daily concerts during the A.E.F. try-outs for the Inter-Allied Meet.”

The 808th Pioneer Infantry regiment drew men from Baltimore and Washington, DC. Its Band Leader was a Native American, James Riley Wheelock, a well-known East Coast musical figure who was nicknamed “the red rival of Sousa.” The ensemble was celebrated for staying close to the troops “right at the front, being only a few kilometers behind the line, and in danger of attracting the attention of hostile forces.” Naturally, the 808th band under “Chief” Wheelock was proclaimed for bringing “the real America Jazz, as it should be played, over here” to France. And, after the Armistice, when the bands of the combat regiments had embarked for home, Wheelock’s unit garnered all the prizes : it was judged the best infantry band in the A.E.F., white or black, in a contest held at Camp Pontanezen on June 2, 1919, and it won the signal honor of playing for President Wilson’s departure for home from Brest on June 29, 1919.

The famous 42-piece band of the 814th Pioneer Infantry never reached France, but rather “toured and established a long-to-be remembered reputation in various cities and towns in England.” It was “a collection of superb musicians and entertainers who took London by storm […]. The high point of their visit was a command performance at Buckingham Palace, which brought a letter of commendation from King George.” An anecdote printed in many US papers told the story of when the “colored band from The States went to London to head a parade of American and English soldiers, and halted at Buckingham Palace, King George V and Queen Mary heard the lively airs with undisguised enthusiasm and were loath to have the players depart for the park where they were scheduled for a concert.”

 Post War Return and The Lure of Touring

The greatest of the black regimental bands hoped for stateside work in early 1919. Expectation was building especially about the bands of Europe, Brymn, Thompson, and Thomas. One newspaper announced that “With the return of colored regiments from France we are soon to have in our midst race military bands galore. Of course, each regiment will claim honors of having the best band” (“Colored Military Bands To Delight American Audiences”). The most exciting prospect for turning fame into fortune was through touring, presenting black soldier-musicians to white audiences in large concert halls and theaters patronized by whites, for a middle class who wanted to hear what had gotten Europeans so excited. Thus, black military bands not only brought jazz to France, but in a very real sense, on their return they brought jazz to American as well, playing for larger and more diverse U.S. audiences than had ever heard this music before.

Touring in the states was virtually terra incognita for the black bands, though. There was exactly one model for such a large enterprise. Hoping to build a “movement to exploit Negro music,” famed black conductor and composer Will Marion Cook assembled the New York Syncopated Orchestra (NYSO), and took it out on the road between January 30 and April 30, 1919. One participant later recalled that the NYSO tour was “the first time an orchestra of this kind had ever toured the country,” and reported that Cook’s ambition was for it to be “the greatest thing ever done by colored people.” The military bands followed in Cook’s footsteps.

In February, anticipating that E. E. Thompson would tour with the 367th, one reporter speculated that “there should be some interesting musical moments the next few days when the ‘Buffalo’ musicians return and find the organizations of the 368th and 369th already on the field.” The bands of the 367th and 368th, however, opted out of touring. Only three—the bands of Dulf, Europe, and Brymn—were able to arrange to make tours, and they were out of the gate in a hurry. Dulf and Europe both set out on the same day, March 16. Brymn, not far behind, began touring on March 19.

The response was remarkable. Newspapers reported that “The end of the war has brought into booking offices a large number of musical soldier shows, vaudeville acts and jazz bands that are making records almost everywhere when it comes to getting money,” and boasted of “Colored Attractions Winning O.K. of Broadway Audiences.” On March 29, it was reported that the bands of the Old 8th and the Old 15th would appear in New York in a joint recital, and the hyperbolic article rhapsodized that “Never in the history of the country has such a gigantic undertaking been tried as the tour of these Military bands.” Another article (“Jazz Music is Now All the Rage Throughout the United States”) said, “Since the return of colored military bands from France to these shores the country simply has gone wild about jazz music.” And by yet another report,

“‘There’s music in the air,’ and it has been placed there by the members of the race : their orchestras and bands, military, civilian, and jazz. There are three aggregations, however, that are making history in the way of happy feeling ; they are : the old Eighth Regiment band, Chicago ; the Old 15th Regiment band, New York ; and the New York Syncopated Orchestra. These are under the direction of George Dulf, James Reese Europe, and Will Marion Cook, respectively. These organizations, of more than fifty men each, have been touring the country in recent months and ’setting the people wild’ by their rare entertainment and music. The white people have fallen in line and are hurrahing everywhere for race music, instrumental and vocal.”

George Dulf took the Old 8th band, nicknamed the “Black Devils,” on the road through May 22, 1919. From New Orleans they headed north, then swung east through Columbus, Toledo, and Cleveland into Pennsylvania, and then down the East Coast at least as far south as Greensboro and Richmond. Brymn’s band was also the “Black Devils,” so newspaper advertisements make clear that Dulf’s band was the real deal : “Beware ! Genuine ‘Black Devils’ are 370th Inf. Old Eighth Illinois Regiment Band/ Geo. Dulf, Conductor/.”

Tim Brymn mounted a major publicity campaign for his tour with the 350th. In advertisements, Brymn was “Mr. Jazz Himself,” his band was “The Overseas Jazz Sensation” or “Europe’s Jazz Sensation,” and his concerts were “A Military Symphony Engaged in a Battle of Jazz.” Dulf and the 370th having claimed the “Black Devils” moniker, Brymn distinguished his men by calling them the “70 Black Devils.” They also toured into mid May, from Philadelphia and Trenton west through Pennsylvania into Ohio and east again for a triumphant finale on May 18 in New York City, where the papers called them “The Band All New York Has Been Waiting to Hear.”

Jim Europe, the “Jazz King,” led the 15th NY, now the “369th Infantry Hell Fighters’ Band,” on a tour that was expected to go deep into May. They travelled west from Boston as far as Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago before retracing their path back to Boston, with the anticipation of a grand finale in New York City. After Europe’s death on March 9, though, the Boston concert series concluded on May 10 and May 11 under the baton of Felix Weir, and the tour came to a stop.

From March into May, the 369th band’s itinerary regularly crisscrossed with the paths of the other touring ensembles. For example, Brymn’s men played Philadelphia on March 19, and Europe’s men played the same city on the very next night. Newspaper advertisements for both ensembles were very aware of the head-to-head match-up and were published next to each other in the papers, with Tim Brymn’s claim to be “Europe’s Jazz Sensation” being countered by Jim Europe’s warning : “Do Not Confuse the Greatest of Jazz Bands with any other Trading on the name of Europe.” And a national press report (“Colored Musicians Have Chicago Charmed”) celebrated the extraordinary juxtaposition of concerts in Chicago’s loop district on the same night—April 28—by Cook’s orchestra at Orchestra Hall, Europe’s band at the Auditorium, and the band of the 365th in Grant Park.

The story of these bands does not end in May 1919. Cook created two offshoots of the NYSO that included ex-military bandsmen. The first was his Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which he brought to England in the summer and then turned over to E. E. Thompson (of the 15th N.Y. and 367th). The second was Cook’s American Syncopated Orchestra, which toured the U.S. from 1919 through 1921 under George Dulf and identified itself as the successor to Dulf’s “Black Devils.” Meanwhile, Brymn kept going for at least three years his own ever-shrinking “Black Devils” band. Then there were the “Harlem Hell Fighters.” After Jim Europe’s death, Gene Mikell stepped in to assume leadership of the band in June, resumed concertizing with it that summer, and stayed at its helm for six more years.


Documenting the accomplishments of the black US Army bands in World War I cannot dislodge Jim Europe and the Hell Fighters Band from their pre-eminent position. But it provides a picture in which the contributions and renown of many additional bands emerge now quite emphatically. The new ragtime idiom called jazz was the special thing that most distinguished them all, and everyone claimed it as their own. It was not just the Hell Fighters’ band that brought jazz overseas. Rather, it was over two dozen bands. Moreover, they played the jazz of Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington as well as that of New York City. Upon their return from the war, touring in the States brought the new jazz music to large concert halls in dozens of cities and towns, and to white U.S. audiences that had never before heard its unfamiliar but catchy sounds. Time and circumstance have conspired to canonize Jim Europe and the 15th NY Hell Fighters, but in his day Americans and Europeans followed the exploits, attended the concerts, and honored the memory of his peers as well.

Auteur(s) - Autrice(s)

Dr. Peter M. Lefferts is Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has lectured and published extensively in North America and Europe on medieval European music and early 20th Century American popular music.

Pour citer l'article

Peter M. Lefferts : « Black US Army Bands in World War I » , in Epistrophy - Quand soudain, le jazz ! / Suddenly, jazz !.03, 2018 - ISSN : 2431-1235 - URL : https://www.epistrophy.fr/black-us-army-bands-in-world-war-i.html // Mise en ligne le 2 juillet 2018 - Consulté le 24 avril 2024.

Quand soudain, le jazz ! / Suddenly, jazz !



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