The Harlem Hellfighters have taken to the spotlight in modern times thanks to the popularity of the video game “Battlefield 1″, where the African American soldiers are featured in the very opening of the game. The US 369th Infantry Regiment was a unit of African American soldiers who served with incredible distinction during World War I. During the war many white American soldiers refused to serve with blacks, and as a result the 369th was assigned to the French Army, the French having little qualms with serving with African Americans, nor did they have a policy of segregation such as the US Army. They were even issued French weapons and wore French helmets while in combat. During their service in World War I the 369th was nicknamed by the French “The Harlem Hellfighters” because of their tenacious fighting spirit. They never gave ground in combat, not one soldier was ever captured, and they served the longest continuous deployment of any other Allied unit during the war (191 days of continuous combat). Due to their bravery, they were also among the most decorated Allied units, with two Medals of Honor, 171 French Croix de Guerre’s, and numerous Distinguished Service Crosses.
One of the most unique features of the Harlem Hellfighter’s was their band, perhaps the only unit in the entire war to have a ragtime band. Unlike pretty much all other military bands which played traditional marches and martial music, the Harlem Hellfighter Band played the music they loved and could perform best, mostly American ragtime music and early forms of Jazz. The Harlem Hellfighter Band was directed by Lt. James Reese Europe, a man who was certainly fit for the job as he was the band leader of the Clef Club Orchestra, a band popular in New York for their ragtime and proto-jazz music.
On April 8th, 1918 French soldiers turned their heads in wonder as The Harlem Hellfighters marched toward the front to the tunes of hot ragtime and Jazz beats.
No one in Europe had ever heard such music, in fact Jazz was barely even heard in the United States outside of a few communities in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. The new music became an instant hit among both French and British soldiers, and before long the Harlem Hellfighters Band was being called to perform for French and British units all along the line, as well as villages they passed through. Soon, the Harlem Hellfighters swinging sound took Western Europe by storm, and the band was even invited to perform in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Among the Hellfighters biggest hits was a ragtime tune called “Memphis Blues”.
And then of course the biggest crowd pleaser given the location and audience was a jazzed up version of “Le Marseillaise”
After the war the band would make a grand tour of Europe, then return home and make a grand tour of the United States. Stories of the Harlem Hellfighters unique sound had spread across American and people were demanding more. During their American tour, the band cut 24 records. Everywhere they went, whether in Europe or the United States, they drew huge cheering crowds, they had become the superstars of their day.
Unfortunately the story of the Harlem Hellfighters Band did not end well for James Europe. On the night of May 9th, 1919 Europe confronted one of his drummers over poor and unprofessional behavior. The drummer, known as a hothead among the band members, attacked Europe and stabbed him in the throat with a penknife. Europe bled out and died while in the hospital later that night.
The legacy of the Harlem Hellfighters Band is as grand and all encompassing for music as the Great War itself. Essentially, the band is credited with spreading the popularity of Jazz throughout Europe and America. Before World War I, Jazz was a niche genre of music, common only among African Americans living in certain areas of New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. After the exploits of the Harlem Hellfighters Band Jazz would spread across the world, becoming the dominant form of popular music up to the 1950′s and serving as the predecessor to popular music styles today such as rock, hip hop, pop, and soul.
Ben Jaffe is the Creative Director of the Preservation Hall, where he plays the tuba and upright bass in the band his parents founded. Watch him celebrate the musical scene in New Orleans and exemplify how jazz beats through the heart of the city.
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