They walked a very long way, saw you, and tagged you forever… then strode away, but kept you in their mind as they tagged someone else. See, That’s how a lot of this works.
They didn’t tell you where they were going, or what it would feel like, or sound like, or the stories you’d tell about all that you’d survive. And YES, you will survive…or be survived by.
In 1881, James Reese Europe is born in Mobile, Alabama, and in the pre-dawn of the Great Migration, his parents moved up to Washington, D.C. because they knew. It is in D.C that James begins to take violin lessons from Joseph Douglas, the grandson of Frederick Douglass because Douglass innately knew that liberation not only speaks from the mind, but also from instrument. The violin, hollowed wood, with a bow strung with horse hair abrading tense steel.
See, Liberation occurs in many forms. And when James then takes his violin up to New York, he is seeking a new sound to make, new folk to break bread with, and a new stage to plow, for The “stage” will always be a portal, a place to test what is real and surreal.
What he realizes is that a required respect on the stage and off must be demanded, which culminated in the Black musicians union called The Clef Club. It is the humanity that I hear in these songs and in his bands. When James tagged 125 musicians to bring his brand of syncopation to Carnegie Hall, the new beat had arrived. Because syncopation is about urgency, pushing the beat ahead to apply the anticipation of the oncoming downbeat , an outlook that is inherently futuristic.
So all that futurism arrives. But the indoor stages proved only preparation for another dangerous stage, the battlefield of WW1. With his band of Black diaspora, he brought the music across the Atlantic, to the frontline of battle as his commitment to expansive vision was beyond.
Beyond the last row of seats in the house, or the horizon of the trenches ahead. James Reese Europe becomes one of the seminal Big Bangs in Black Music. Let us meditate on that. From to the Dance Hall to the Battlefield, and back home to you. Love, Jason
From the Dancehall to the Battlefield connects to one of the original Big Bangs in Black Music, James Reese Europe. In the early 20th century, James Reese Europe and others firmly understood that Black culture has a history, sound, and a code. This brought Black pride onto the stage and into the world.
All of No Man’s Land is Ours was a song frequently sung by JRE’s right hand man, Noble Sissle while JRE played piano. The lyrics include
“The victory’s won, the war is over
The whole wide world is wreathed in clover!
All of No Man’s Land is ours”
I keep thinking that much of what is considered “Land”? And though these brave soldiers fought “for their country”, This bravery is something that I consider is the root of how abstraction is used in Black improvisational music. The soldiers trust JRE, because he is a celebrity. But none of them have ever performed in an actual war., and neither has JRE. They are all marching into a void together, but they are led by the sound.
Flee as a Bird/ Ghosts features Brian Settles.. a piece the 369th Infantry band played when a soldier did not return from the battlefield. Brian represents the restless soul fighting for his last breath before the last shovel full of dirt covers his body. The medley with Albert Ayler’s composition Ghosts gives a nod to Ayler’s own military band work. Also, Ayler performs his own version of Le Marseillaise, the French national anthem that James Reese Europe remixed for French audiences.
W.C. Handy, the bard of the blues, wrote many pieces that became the backbone of the 369th Infantry band. Some of the arrangements were done by William Grant Still. These blues’ were also used as a recruitment tool for the 369th Infantry, aka Harlem Hellfighters.
Zena’s Circle is a breathing meditation the composer and deep listening practitioner Pauline Oliveros showed the Bandwagon at the Park Avenue Armory. We use this meditation at the end of the performance to become one breath within the music. The band stands in a circle while holding hands, one person sends a pulse around the circle while exhaling.
Castle House Rag – a piece James wrote for the dancing couple, Vernon and Irene Castle. His dance tunes in the early 20th century became hits and shifted the tempos of dance music within the dancehall.
For James – is my anthem for James. I take this anthem around the world and have audiences sing it as well. The middle of the piece features a German audience and the final section is when i taught it to the 369 Experience band, a group of HBCU students that gathers to play Europe’s music. JRE is a throughline to the HBCU marching bands. By the end, I’m speaking with the students about how Randy Weston shared the profundity of James Reese Europe with me.
1. From the Dancehall to the Battlefield – Jason Moran
2. Ballin the Jack / Feed the Fire – James Reese Europe and Geri Allen
3. All of No Man’s Land is Ours – James Reese Europe
4. Russian Rag – George Cobb
5. Darktown Strutter’s Ball – Shelton Brooks
6. Flee as a Bird to your Mountain / Ghosts – Traditional / Albert Ayler
7. Drop (Tear) – Jason Moran
8. That Moaning Trombone – Carl Bethel & Sandy Coffin
9. Memphis Blues – W. C. Handy
10. St. Louis Blues – W. C. Handy
11. Hesitating Blues – W. C. Handy
12. Clef Club March – James Reese Europe
13. Castle House Rag – James Reese Europe
14. Zena’s Circle – Pauline Oliveros
15. For James – Jason Moran
Jason Moran – Piano and voice
Tarus Mateen – Bass
Nasheet Waits – Drums
Logan Richardson – Alto Saxophone
Brian Settles – Tenor Saxophone
Darryl Harper – Clarinet
David Adewumi – Trumpet
Reginald Cyntje – Trombone
Chris Bates – Trombone
Jose Davila – Tuba, Helicon.