When Lieutenant Jim Europe brought his 369th U.S. Infantry Hell Fighters Band home after distinguished service during what is now referred to as the First World War, he was clearly on the verge of unprecedented success as his country's most accomplished African American musical director. Before serving in the war he had founded the Clef Club, an institution devoted to the advancement of African American artists, and had collaborated with ballroom dance icons Vernon & Irene Castle. When Memphis Archives took on the James Reese Europe legacy, the producers bypassed the records Europe made in 1913 and 1914 with his Society Orchestra in conjunction with the Castles, choosing instead to compile all of the issued Pathe recordings Europe made with his syncopated military band during the spring of 1919. Whereas Europe's Society Orchestra was largely composed of stringed instruments, the Hell Fighters Band was a military wind and percussion ensemble that had operated very near the front lines. Some members were photographed smiling broadly next to their damaged horns, and pictures of Lieut. Europe in uniform show a stern and impressive figure. Back in 1919, syncopated music and jazz were just beginning to make it onto phonograph records. Aside from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, most of the hot stuff was by Europe's colleague Ford Dabney and trailblazers Arthur Pryor, Ted Lewis, Ben Selvin, Rudy Wiedoeft, Harry A. Yerkes, Wilbur Sweatman, Earl Fuller, Ross Gorman, Joseph C. Smith, the Louisiana Five, the Synco Jazz Band, the Scranton Sirens, the Happy Six, and the Columbia Saxophone Sextette. Well at the head of the pack, Europe conducted four different recording sessions in March and May 1919, using either a very large ensemble of nearly 30 players, or a scaled-down unit accompanying vocalists C. Creighton Thompson and Noble Sissle, whose longtime musical colleague Eubie Blake was listed as the band's "Civilian Liason." The first thing that you'll notice about this CD is the fact that the 78 rpm surface noise (and what the liner notes describe as "master cylinder rumble") was not eliminated and does not fade in and out between cuts. This is a technique rarely employed in CD reissues of pre-LP material, and the brain soon grows so accustomed to the sound of a needle gliding through the groove that the music takes over completely, as it should. As the producers of this precious album insist: "Continuous background noise equals silence…We wanted this CD to be an integral, whole experience, like a concert or a movie. Silence between the cuts would ruin that. It's not a collection of separate records, anymore. It's an hour-plus performance by Lieutenant Jim Europe's 369th U.S. Infantry Hell Fighters Band."
The most gratifying selections are the instrumentals, which are now considered the very first big-band jazz records. The ensemble and soloists did their best work with three melodies by William Christopher Handy: "Hesitating Blues," "Memphis Blues," and the famous "St. Louis Blues." "That Moaning Trombone" is punctuated by bracing glissandi from the trombone section, which included Ward "Dope" Andrews and Herb Flemming. There are carefully arranged versions of Bob Carleton's "Ja Da," Sheldon Brooks' "Darktown Strutters' Ball", and Wilbur Sweatman's "That's Got ‘Em." "Clarinet Marmalade" is a cover (one of the very earliest) of a tune by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The "Broadway Hit Medley" combines verifiable show tunes like the ballad "Smiles," the fox-trot "Tackin' ‘Em Down," and Richard Whiting's waltz "Till We Meet Again," with the French march "Madelon" and "I've Got the Blue Ridge Blues" woven into the mix. In addition to several other period instrumentals ("Missouri Blues," "Russian Rag," "Indianola") Europe chose to include several songs that directly reference the battlefields from which he and the Hell Fighters Band had just returned, as well as a sprinkling of sweet originals and Tin Pan Alley confections. About 48 hours after the last of the records were cut on May 7, 1919 Jim Europe was murdered by one of his drummers, who stabbed him in the neck with a pocketknife. The blow to African American music and culture was devastating, as Europe was already being referred to as "The King of Jazz", a title soon to be adopted by Paul Whiteman. The reissuing of Europe's final recordings nearly 80 years after their creation was long overdue, and this meticulously researched and intelligently annotated edition does justice to the man and his musical legacy. For a full appreciation of this artist's life and work, see Reid Badger's insightful biography A Life in Ragtime, published by Oxford University Press in 1995.