A LIFE IN RAGTIME by Reid Badger

A LIFE IN RAGTIME

A Biography of James Reese Europe
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Badger (American Studies/Univ. of Alabama) restores an important, forgotten chapter in African-American musical history. Europe was one of the pioneering composers, bandleaders, and musical factotums in turn-of-the-century America. Raised in Washington, D.C., he was exposed to a rich musical life in church, home, and public concerts. Around 1903, he left the capital for New York City (where his older brother was established as a theatrical pianist) and was soon working as a bandleader, arranger, and composer. Europe was a born organizer, helping to found a black theatrical fraternity known humorously as ``The Frogs'' and then, in 1910, the famous Clef Club, the first union of African-American musicians. In 1914, he joined forces with Vernon and Irene Castle, who were just beginning to perform the new black-influenced dances for high society. He introduced them to W.C. Handy's ``Memphis Blues,'' suggesting they create a new dance to accompany its changing meters; the result was the fox-trot, the popular dance team's most enduring legacy. During WW I, Europe was a machine- gunner with the 369th Regiment, an all-black company that fought as part of the French army (because the Americans feared integrating their ranks). Ironically, after surviving front-line duty, Europe was knifed by a disgruntled band member in 1919; he died at age 39. Europe, like Handy, his near-contemporary, hoped to mold a black concert music, drawing on 19th-century European roots, that would ``uplift his race.'' Although elements of ragtime and jazz crept into his music, he favored the sentimental parlor style of playing and singing that was the rage in late Victorian days. His musical legacy has been more or less forgotten, although without his pioneering work the success of Paul Whiteman's orchestra in the 1920s (and Duke Ellington's in the '30s) surely couldn't have occurred. Will appeal to fans of early jazz, African-American history, and 20th-century culture. (30 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-506044-X
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1994