Military Music:
Sousa and The Hellfighters



Marches were a central influence in the creation of the Jenkins' Band sound because marches were some of the only notated music available for the bands to play. As a trombonist in the band, Julius Watson reminisced, "We played every Sousa march there ever was." But these marches sounded radically different than originally intended: the music was affected by all the elements shown on the main music page. With the aid of African musical elements and the syncopation of ragtime music, the marches became looser and more "raggedy" when played by the Jenkins' Orphanage Bands.

Listening Room

"Stars & Stripes Forever,"
a Sousa march played by the Dallas Wind Symphony (In RealAudio format)
James Reese Europe's "Marching Hellfighters"

The other major influence in military music was Lt. James Reese Europe. After migrating from Mobile, Alabama to Washington, D.C. and finally to New York, Europe became famous leading the Clef Club Orchestra. After successful concerts at Carnegie Hall, he suddenly left the orchestra and started to work for Irene and Vernon Castle at the Castle House.
Later, when the U.S. entered World War I, Europe enlisted in New York's all-black regiment, the 15th Infantry. The colonel soon called on Europe "to organize for me the best damn brass band in the United States Army."

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Europe recruited the best players and did indeed have "the best damn brass band in the Army." He also recruited more than just musicians: he looked actively for singers, comedians, dancers, and others who could entertain troops along the way. And like the Jenkins' Orphanage Bands, Reese recruited the best drum major he could find: the Harlem dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

When the band was sent to France in the fall of 1917, they were sent as the 369th Infantry Band. This infantry was nicknamed "the Hellfighters," so the band also adopted the name. With their raggedy, jazzy feeling, the band was a huge hit abroad and Samuel Charters gives some of the credit for France's affinity for jazz to "the Hellfighters:"

They made such an impression on France that there was an immediate
demand for Negro jazz musicians in Paris, and France developed a
taste for jazz that is still very strong.


Hellfighters marching down Fifth Ave After the Germans surrendered, "the Hellfighters" band returned home by marching down Fifth Avenue playing one of their raggedy tunes. Months later, in a most ironic turn, Herbert Wright, a drummer and former Jenkins' Orphanage Band member, broke Reese's jugular vein with a penknife. James Reese Europe died at the age of forty on May 9, 1919.


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