James Reese Europe: Age 38 | Cause Of Death: STABBING

(Born: Feb 22, 1881 in Mobile, AL; Died: May 9, 1919 in Boston, MA)

With the exception of singer/comedian Bert Williams and a few obscure gospel groups, James Reese Europe and his orchestra were the first black musicians to ever record. Europe’s Society Orchestra cut eight numbers during 1913-14, several years before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It would be inaccurate to call that music jazz since it was essentially written-out arrangements without any real improvising, but Europe’s performances were influenced by ragtime and hinted slightly at the syncopations of jazz. Unfortunately, none of those historic performances have yet been reissued on CD but his 1919 “Hell Fighters” Band’s 24 recordings have been released on Featuring Noble Sissle from the collector’s IAJRC label. Tragically, Europe was stabbed to death by an irate drummer just two days after the final recording which is why he is obscure in jazz history and was unable to make his mark in music in the 1920s. ~Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

Buy the James Reese Europe biography today: A Life in Ragtime by R. Reid Badger

More on the death of J.R. Europe:…The final concert on the tour was at Mechanic’s Hall in Boston on May 9, 1919. That evening, when one of the “Percussion Twins,” Herbert Wright, became angered by Europe’s strict direction, he attacked the band leader with a knife during intermission. Noble Sissle recalled:

     “Jim wrestled Herbert to the ground, I shook Herbert and he seemed like a crazed child, trembling with excitement. Although Jim’s wound seemed superficial, they couldn’t stop the bleeding, and as he was being rushed to the hospital he said to me: “Sissle, don’t forget to have the band down at the State House at nine in the morning. I am going to the hospital and I will have my wound dressed….I leave everything for you to carry on.”

Europe’s jugular vein had been severed. The next day the papers carried the headlines: “The Jazz King Is Dead.” ~Thomas L Morgan

On May 9, Europe was preparing for a performance at Mechanics Hall in Boston. Gov. Calvin Coolidge had invited Europe to perform on the steps of the State House the next day. Europe’s promise was never brighter and his popularity never greater. But a musician named Herbert Wright, one of Europe’s own drummers, unleashed a rage against the band leader with little warning. Wright claimed the bandmaster had been showing favoritism to his twin brother, who was another percussionist with the band. Wright suddenly, and in full view of witnesses, stabbed Europe in the neck with a pen knife, leaving what appeared to be a superficial wound. But the bleeding wouldn’t stop and Europe, in his prime, died that day at a local hospital.
~Copyright©1999 by The American Legion