January 28, 1996

A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe.  By Reid Badger.  Oxford University Press, 1995.  328 pp.  ISBN: 0‑19‑506044‑X.  $30.00.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

At last!  A book‑length biography of one of the most important, but underdocumented, figures in early twentieth‑century popular music.  Short entries for James Reese (“Jim”) Europe are found in many encyclopedias of notable American musicians, and in most histories of black culture.  But the coverage is often distressingly brief, and uncertain.  Grove gives him half a column; Eileen Southern’s landmark Biographical Dictionary of Afro‑American and African Musicians (Greenwood Press, 1982), about a page.  He is also alluded to in most histories of jazz.

However most of these sources do not seem to know quite what to make of him.  He is most frequently called a “transitional” figure, his music a “precursor” of jazz.  Author Reid Badger curiously tries to place him in ragtime, where he also fits uncomfortably.  Jazz scholars do not really consider him one of their own, and neither do band historians or writers on popular music.  Such is the fate of a creative artist whose work does not fit neatly on the accepted, straight‑line path from beginnings (Buddy Bolden) to present day forms.

Yet Jim Europe was unmistakably highly influential in his time, shaping the musical direction of a generation of black musicians.  He did much to popularize black syncopated music and, yes, jazz, to white America and to the world, while fighting behind the scenes to improve the lot of black musicians.  His successful association with superstar dancers Vernon and Irene Castle helped break down barriers to whites and blacks performing together.  He led the first black orchestra ever to record commercially, for Victor in 1913.  We can only guess what musical directions he would have taken, and what influence he might have had, had he not been cut down at the height of his career, in 1919, just as the Jazz Age was about to begin.

Jim Europe was born to a middle‑class black family in Mobile, Alabama, in 1880 and grew up among the black musical elite of Washington, D.C.  After the death of his father in 1899 he moved to New York, where he built a career as an orchestra leader and composer for black musicals, including those of Cole & Johnson and Bert Williams.  A tall, imposing man, and a natural leader, he was distressed by the conditions under which black musicians had to work, and in 1910 he founded the Clef Club, a combination social club and booking agency for black musicians in the New York area.  Largely through his energy and drive, it proved highly successful in improving the lot of its members.

In 1913 Europe met Vernon and Irene Castle, the most popular exhibition dancers in America, and became their “hot” bandleader, among other things developing for them their most enduring dance, the fox trot.  He appeared widely throughout the mid teens, with the Castles and separately, staging both popular and serious concerts with his 100‑piece “National Negro Symphony Orchestra.”  In 1916 he was invited to lead the band of a black New York Army Reserve Regiment, which he molded into the hot‑playing “369th Infantry (‘Hell Fighters’) Band.”  Shipped off to France, the band took that country by storm, introducing le jazz hot to the continent.  By the time he returned to the United States in early 1919 he was an authentic war hero (he had also found time to lead a machine gun unit, and was the first black officer to lead troops in combat during the war).  He led a triumphal parade up Fifth Avenue, and Harlem went wild.

No sooner had he set out with his band on a tour of the East Coast and Midwest, than it was all cut short.  During a performance in Boston on May 9, 1919, he was attacked backstage by a mentally unbalanced member of his band wielding a pocket knife.  Although he suffered only a single glancing blow, Jim Europe died a few hours later, at the age of 39.

Reid Badger describes the twists and turns of Europe’s active and colorful life in immaculate detail, with the sort of full documentation that will make life easier for future researchers who wish to build upon his pioneering work.  While the narrative is sometimes a little dry for such an action‑packed career, all the facts are here.

As is often the case with historians writing about musical subjects, Badger is a little less sure of himself when it comes to Europe’s recording career.  Only a couple of pages each are devoted to the 1913‑1914 and 1919 sessions, for Victor and Pathe, respectively.  Those recordings are admittedly a mixed bag, including pedestrian readings of current popular songs alongside some of the most startling jazz improvisations put on record up to that time.  There are also solo vocals, spirituals, and specialty numbers such as “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” (which was accompanied in live performances by sound effects and a light show).  Europe was evidently recreating the complete range of his stage show on record.

The book includes a surprisingly long listing of Europe’s compositions (nearly 90 of them), and a detailed discography based on Brian Rust’s Jazz Records and other sources.  The Europe discography is by now pretty well known, and not too much can go wrong.  Suffice it to say that this one does not break any new ground, and introduces (or perpetuates) a few minor errors of its own.  There are occasional typos, and missing composer credits and matrix numbers which should have been obtainable.  Perhaps most annoying is the perpetuation of a long‑standing error (which began with Pathe itself in 1919) giving composer credit for the song “Jazz Baby” to Europe, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, when it is quite obviously the much‑recorded pop tune by Merrill and Jerome; and the suggestion that concert tenor Roland Hayes was a member of Europe’s vaudeville quartet the Four Harmony Kings, which he most definitely was not!

One interesting aspect of the discography is its listing of additional band personnel (either possible or alternate) besides those named in the standard jazz discographies.  For example, for the first session, on December 29, 1913, the Victor ledger indicate that exactly 13 musicians took part, showing the instrumentation but not the names.  Rust gives us eight names, and indicates that there were also five unknown banjo/mandolin players.  Badger shows a pool of 20 possible musicians, but never mentions that only 13 actually played.  Presumably the additional names are based on his research into who was with the band around the time of the sessions.  Unfortunately the author, who immaculately sources his work elsewhere, gives no indication here where he got this information.  (Which raises a larger issue: why are discographers so dreadfully lax in documenting their sources?  None of the standard discographers, from Rust to Ruppli, give the reader more than the vaguest general idea of their sources, leading to widespread perpetuation of errors.  Scholarly text is customarily sourced, but how often have you seen a discographical entry with a footnote?  Professor Badger is not the only one guilty of making the reader “guess where he got it.”) A nice touch is the inclusion of location codes indicating where copies of the original recordings can be found among the five Rigler‑Deutsch libraries.

In all, Reid Badger has given us a splendid and long‑needed biography of a seminal figure in American popular music and jazz.  The discography may be a bit lacking, but A Life in Ragtime more than compensates for that with its full, well‑rounded portrait of the man who in some ways paved the way for the Jazz Age.


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