During the first two decades of the twentieth century, James Reese Europe emerged as the most renowned bandleader of New York's entertainment world. Famed for his syncopated orchestral accompaniment of the dancing team of Irene and Vernon Castle, Europe became a major figure in promoting the popularity of social dancing and engendered a ragtime-based music that contributed to the emergence of jazz. During World War I, his 369th Infantry Band the “Hell Fighters,” was hailed by French and American troops as the finest ensemble in the Allied Army.
James Reese Europe was born on February 22, 1880, in Mobile, Alabama. When Europe was nine years old his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he received formal piano instruction from his mother, and studied his father's improvisational skills on fiddle and banjo. At Washington's respected M. Street High School, Europe joined the school drill company and served as the corps color sergeant. After school the young man helped organize church concerts at Lincoln Memorial Church and presented violin recitals with his sister, Mary. When his father died, 19-year-old Europe sought to support the family by becoming a professional musician.
He left home to join his brother, John, a successful cabaret pianist, in New York. At first Europe auditioned at clubs on violin, but later, he switched to mandolin and piano. Europe's first theater engagement came in 1904 when he directed the musical farce “Trip to Africa,” an experience that opened new horizons for Europe, who, over the next six years, devoted himself to the development of black musical theater. In 1905 he joined the 20-member orchestra the Memphis Students, and became active in a number of other black musical productions. The years of 1906-07, he served as music director of a three-act comedy “The Shoo-Fly Regiment,” and in 1907- 08, he followed up with “The Black Politician.” In 1908 Europe was invited to become a charter member of the "Frogs," an 11-member club dedicated to promoting the Negro theatrical profession and its image as a serious art form. That year he also spent a great deal of time preparing the orchestra and cast for the debut of a comedy production “Red Moon.”
In 1910 Europe gave up his musical duties to help found the Clef Club, a black musicians union. Elected as the organization's first president, Europe sought to achieve higher musical standards, equitable salaries, and better treatment from white employers. Europe upheld a strict dress code, stipulating that musicians wear tuxedos on jobs booked in advance and suit and bow ties for pick-up dates. Under Europe's direction, the club's initial 100- man orchestra took the name the Clef Club Symphony Orchestra. It was an unconventional aggregation that consisted of mandolins in place of first and second violins. It also featured violins, banjos, harp guitars, cellos, trap drums, and timpani. Not long after its formation, the group expanded to include an organ, two flutes, two clarinets, and ten pianos. Europe demanded that musicians play only the written score; he stressed the written arrangement and exact performance over spontaneous improvisation. His repertoire included marches, rags, vaudeville numbers, minstrel tunes, operatic medleys, and popular songs. When not composing and organizing music for the orchestra's next performance, Europe involved himself in community work and appeared as a guest director for various black bands.