Steve Harvey Show: MyHeritage Reveals a Music Legend’s History

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Although mostly overlooked by the history books, James Reese Europe was one of the most influential American ragtime, jazz bandleader and composers in the early 1900s in New York City. We were privileged to share his magnificent history on the Steve Harvey Show.

Watch the full segment here:

James Reese Europe was a gifted musician and composer who paved the way for many African-American musicians.

Portrait of James Reese Europe, 1919 [Credit: Wikipedia]

He was the first African-American man to play Carnegie Hall in 1912, and was nicknamed the “Martin Luther King of music.” In 1910, he organized the Clef Club, a union and booking agency for musicians of color. He also created the Clef Club Orchestra, the first all African-American orchestra in the country. They played music written solely by African-American composers.

Clef Club with James Reese Europe, 1912. Courtesy Eubie Blake Collection, Maryland Historical Society.
The Clef Club with James Reese Europe, 1912. [Credit: Eubie Blake Collection, Maryland Historical Society}

The 369th Infantry Jazz Band

During World War I, James was enlisted as a lieutenant in the 15th Regiment. He was ordered to put together the best band he could muster, and he did so, going as far afield as Puerto Rico to find the right musicians. In this Ellis Island Passenger list record, he returns to New York from his trip to Puerto Rico.

Ellis Island Passenger Lists record, May 1917 [Credit: MyHeritage]

His jazz band accompanied the legendary 369th Infantry, also known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. It was a regiment of mainly African-Americans and was one of the first American regiments on overseas soil during World War I. They spent more time on the front lines than any other American regiment during the war — 191 days.

Lt. James Reese Europe poses with the jazz band of the 369th Infantry Regiment on the way home from war. [Credit: National Guard Bureau Historic Files]

James Reese Europe and his military band traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians. They were known as the band that brought jazz to the continent of Europe. James Europe is quoted, “We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop, we must develop along our own lines.”

Upon his return from WWI, James and the 369th Infantry Jazz Band began a performance tour throughout the U.S. Tragically, it was short-lived. Europe was murdered May 3, 1919, by Herbert Wright, a drummer in the band, right before the band’s second performance. After a quarrel in which Wright mistakenly believed that he was being cheated by Europe, Wright lunged for James with a penknife. On his way to the hospital, Europe ordered another talented band member to continue the band’s performance in his place. Europe died just a few hours after being taken to the hospital — he was just 39.

Sheet music by Lt. James Reese Europe, Noble Sessle (sic; Noble Sissle) and Eubie Blake, published by M. Witmark & Sons, New York, 1919. [Credit: Library of Congress American Memory collection, Wikimedia]

Family History and Tree

James Reese Europe was born Feb 20, 1880, in Mobile, Alabama. Through the 1880 census records, we were able to trace Europe’s family history and build his family tree. His father, Henry, was a customs official and his mother, Laura, was a housekeeper. They were the parents to James and his four siblings.

1880 United States Federal Census Records [Credit: MyHeritage]

Based on the 1880 census record, we were able to construct James Europe’s family tree and trace his descendants.

James Reese Europe’s Family Tree [Credit: MyHeritage]

Through this family tree data, we uncovered that Europe’s great-grandson, Rob Europe, continues the family’s musical tradition. Rob is a musician in the band, “Foster Europe.” He was invited to the Steve Harvey Show to learn more about his great-grandfather’s history and legacy.

Rob Europe, James Reese Europe’s great-grandson, performs with his band, “Foster Europe.” [Credit: The Steve Harvey Show]

Many remarkable histories are just waiting to be discovered. Through our historical records and family tree data, we were able to shed light on James Europe’s story. Find out what stories you can uncover within your own family history. Start building your family tree today!

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