Fight in Hell: How Jason Moran uplifts the legacy of James Reese Europe — and inspires action today

In May 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois penned one of his most famous editorials, “Returning Soldiers.” Having fought in the European Great War, he wrote, the descendants of African America would now be returning to fight in another Great War. Forced to fight the Germans in France, the segregated 369th Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, bravely confronted the “no man’s land” of trench warfare only to return to another Hell — as Du Bois had once described the United States.

In an earlier editorial, “Close Ranks,” Du Bois had asked us to “forget our special grievances” and join the fight for democracy across the Atlantic, but he was now predicting another round of fighting in the battle for Black freedom. Red Summer was coming to the United States. It was already here.

So it was ironic, if not tragic, that the composer, bandleader and activist James Reese Europe – one of the most consequential Black musicians of his time, lieutenant in the 369th Regiment, D.C. native, and friend to Du Bois – would not live to experience, and thus offer continued musical integument to, the horrors of this war at home. Yet, as pianist and multimedia artist Jason Moran relates, “the big bang” that Europe had already helped initiate would soon give rise to the sounds we know as jazz, offering one of the most important reminders of how to fight in Hell.

What does a big bang sound like? Jason Moran’s newest record, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield, is music made in tribute to that sound, to what the sound made possible, and what lies unrealized in sounds yet to come. Creation stories – like the ones that Moran’s interpretations of Europe narrate – do not cohere around some all-powerful deity to which the determination of every other thing is linked. The sound is not determined by a mastery which disciplines and forces compliance. This syncopated beat had to move differently. As Moran beautifully intones on the album’s poetic opening track, “the new beat arrives.” All the possibilities for doing something new or unique were already in the sounds that came before.


A big bang does not come from nothing, it simply marks a passage into another realm. Here is how Europe himself once described it, as recounted in Reid Badger’s Europe biography, A Life in Ragtime

“With the brass instruments we put in mutes and make a whirling motion with the tongue, at the same time blowing full pressure. With wind instruments we pinch the mouthpiece and blow hard. This produces the peculiar sound which you all know. To us it is not discordant, as we play the music as it is written, only that we accent strongly in this manner the notes which originally would be without accent [i.e. syncopation]. It is natural for us to do this; it is indeed a racial musical characteristic.” 

What the music was originally intended to do, no longer will do. The fight we are fighting calls for something else. In order to do what music does, what this music did, the big bang created a sound that, as Europe writes, “breathes the spirit of the race.”

In that sense, Moran is a perfect arranger of that sound, that futurism. As his collaborator, the D.C.-based musician and educator Reginald Cyntje, describes, with Moran’s approach to composition and arrangement there is always “one foot in the past” and another speaking to now. For Cyntje, whose trombone can be heard on the new album, the past being heard in this sound does not serve as a restriction. Much like Europe’s band, Moran’s ensemble is imbued with a responsibility to the ancestral tradition, the imperative to “play with as much attitude as possible,” Cyntje said. This is what the music says do. It is what Europe’s spirit says do.

Born in Mobile, Ala., Europe honed this sound in the churches and schools of Washington, D.C., where he and his sister, the pianist Mary Europe, emerged as two of the most gifted students in the District’s turn-of-the-century music scene. So when Moran decided to premiere his initial Europe project, “The Absence of Ruin,” at the Kennedy Center, it was also a spiritual return. (A stream of that full concert can be found on the Kennedy Center’s website.) With an ensemble that included D.C. musicians Cyntje and saxophonist Brian Settles, the sounds of Europe and the Hellfighters’ music filled the concert hall, much as they had once filled the halls of France, where the 369th’s band had first created some of these tunes — in what is believed to be continent’s first introduction to “jazz.” Europe, who did not often talk to the press, described the reception as a “riot.” Revisiting the music via Moran, we can feel it again. But we also feel something more when a young Immanuel Wilkins leaves his chair at the end of the set, then is joined by the whole band in a circle ritual. Finally, Moran plays the last notes of a simple yet elegant melody and they collectively channel Europe’s spirit as they exhale in gradual succession, from one end of the stage to the other. The whole concert had been about channeling Europe. Describing this moment, Cyntje recalls: “His spirit passed through us as we’re performing.” With this ending the band passed that breath back to him, and back to that ancestral great cloud of witnesses.

From the Dancehall to the Battlefield bears the same spiritual depth as the “Absence of Ruin” project, though there are no attempts to recreate the sound exactly. These tunes are roadmaps that lead elsewhere. Comparing the process to slow cooking, Cyntje offers that on the record, “the seasonings were able to soak into the meat.” These blues and rags are living traditions, available where we need them now. 

We have crossed into something. What echoes is the melody calling forth? What wars are we fighting now? And what lies awaiting us after we fight?

The last track, “For James,” ends with Moran recounting that it was in the home of Randy Weston where the significance of Europe’s music was first relayed to him. The Weston connection is key, as the Brooklyn-born pianist is known for argued powerfully that the sources and transformations of this music were always firmly rooted in “African rhythms.”

Over the last few years, Moran’s Bandwagon trio has often played his interpretations of Europe’s music alongside the compositions of another pianist whose craft was honed in D.C., the late Geri Allen. There is something to this pairing. Allen, feeding the fire. Europe, a hellfighter. The circle — from Europe to Weston to Allen to Moran, and to all that he has brought along — is a veritable ring shout. Another big bang is in the offing.

The Bandwagon’s recent appearances have usually ended with part of a melody taken from Europe’s recording of “Plantation Echoes.” Similar to the ritual that ends the “Absence of Ruin” project, you can feel something shift in the echo that reverberates from Moran’s playing, and into the crowd’s participation. It creates a moment that inculcates peace, resolution: We have crossed into something. What echoes is the melody calling forth? What wars are we fighting now? And what lies awaiting us after we fight?

Red Summer came to D.C. in June 1919. Threatened by white violence, the same veterans who might have heard James Reese Europe’s band in France lined up along the U Street Corridor, facing south, from 6th to 14th Streets NW, while comrades atop the Howard Theater’s roof armed themselves with sniper rifles to protect the Black community. Under their feet was the stage that Europe was one of the first to play; he had appeared at the Howard frequently in his many return trips to D.C. But before he could return to the city to perform once again, Europe’s life was cut short. Tragically murdered by one of his bandmates — in our times we might have diagnosed the situation leading to the murder as one produced by post-traumatic stress disorder — Europe’s physical remains now rest in Arlington National Cemetery. And lots of his story is archived at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, a stone’s throw away from the family home and the church they attended. But his spirit is everywhere.

In Washington, D.C., the legacy of James Reese Europe feels secure — but there is no guarantee that this will always be. That legacy is clearly resonant in the sounds coming from the musicians who make up our community. Still, Settles and Cyntje’s appearances on From the Dancehall to the Battlefield and the many ways in which D.C. shows up on this record are reminders that we ought to remember that, so too must our consciousness of how it came to be. In a moment where music education is under attack and our sacred venues are rendered vulnerable by gentrification and neoliberal development logics, we might recall what it took for James Reese Europe to create the big bang that changed all our lives. Jason Moran has made us listen for this ancestor who showed that we are going to still have to fight. But in the end there is that echo, a melody that brings peace, brings relief. 



About Joshua Myers

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Joshua Myers teaches Africana Studies at Howard University and edits A Gathering Together: Literary Journal. His most recent book is Of Black Study (Pluto, 2023).

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