Commissioned by John Wallace, this arrangement of The St Louis Blues has been crafted by Sandy Coffin through close listening of the available recordings of the Harlem Hellfighters Band. Sandy had been heavily involved with the Historic Brass Society symposium 2017 held in New York and assisted John with his research on this fascinating band and the style of music it generated.
Eye-witness accounts refer to the 369th band ‘dancing’ rather than ‘marching’. Above all, in modern performance, finding a ‘dancing beat’ is crucial to a successful performance of this Ragtime march in order to do justice to the great pioneering work of James Reese Europe. Note the flutter-tonguing and use of muting, the counter-melody in soprano cornet, and the wilder and yet wilder nature of each repetition of the Chorus.
Look and Listen:
Background to the Harlem Hellfighters
The US Army 369th Regiment, made up largely of African-Americans from New York, became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because of the heroic reputation which accrued to them during the actions they engaged in during the First World War in Europe.
James Reese Europe was one of the most active African-American composer/musical directors in the pre-war American music scene. The legendary Harlem Hellfighters Band, which he assembled in 1917 from African-American and Puerto Rican musicians, came at an important transitional point in musical history. A new form of music called jazz was emerging from Ragtime and the performing style of Europe’s band was immersed in the flow of this new direction.
Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters influenced and inspired everyone who heard them, including the welcoming crowd when they disembarked in France, bowled over by their swinging rendition of La Marseillaise. Reese Europe became a war hero, commanding a machine-gun unit as well as the band.
On return from War in 1919 the band led a ticker-tape parade along Fifth Avenue in New York and soon made about 30 shellac recordings. These recordings display some of the fingerprints of their performing style: ragging, improvising, muting, wailing, smearing (their word for glissando) – and from the evidence of their recordings they took the printed page as a blueprint for individuality.
In May 1919 during the Hellfighters’ triumphant coast-to-coast tour after their return, James Reese Europe was tragically murdered, bringing to premature close, at the age of 39, the work of a great musical innovator.