Saved events

Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters

Artwork for Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters

Kevin Le Gendre explores the legacy of pioneering musician and soldier James Reese Europe with Jason Moran.

It is forgotten that, in times past, even the most talented of musicians were not insulated from the grand coups de theatre of world history. James Reese Europe is one of the most meaningful cases in point. During the First World War, a time when racial segregation stymied all areas of American life including the armed services, the composer-conductor and many of the musicians he led in peacetime forsook civilian for military life, joining the 369th Infantry, which had the monikers the ‘Black Rattlers’ and ‘Harlem Hellfighters.’ This ‘colored’ regiment was deployed in France in a conflict that, lest we forget, was defined by the horrific realities of trench warfare and casualties on a colossal scale. However, as a counterpoint to the unholy carnage, Europe’s band brought to continental audiences in 1918 an array of startling sounds borne of newly developed African-American idioms such as ragtime and syncopated symphonic music, prototypes of what would eventually become known as jazz.

Tonight pianist and composer Jason Moran celebrates and extends his legacy in The Absence Of Ruin, a piece that presents new arrangements of some of Europe’s timeless works. Moran, whose discography counts interpretations of a wide range of black music, from hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaata to stride piano masters James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, has an important point to make about the monumental courage of Europe, a visionary who had appeared at the Carnegie Hall in 1912, a grand achievement for an African-American artist at that point in time.

'I’ve been trying to think about why he would really jump that far, to sign up.' Moran says 'He’s successful, he’s doing his work. [Europe’s trusted collaborator] Noble Sissle writes about the moment he came back to his office and said I’m gonna tell you what we’re gonna do… we’re gonna sign up! Imagine Wynton Marsalis comes into a room and tells Jazz At Lincoln Center… alright, we’re gonna put down our instruments and go fight. Are you kidding me? With Europe, this is maybe one generation after Emancipation Proclamation, so folks are just getting their freedom. And here we are with enough radical thinkers challenging the system, composers are charging into the concert hall with real intention, and James Reese Europe and his men…do the unimaginable as far as I’m concerned. They sign up!'

As the founder of The Clef Club, a historic organisation that brought together New York-based black artists with a view to improving their working conditions and instilling a greater sense of self-worth, Europe was all too aware of the challenges he and his peers faced. The need to project the best possible image of the Negro in the eyes of a deeply judgemental if not endemically prejudiced mainstream society is a major element of Europe’s story, or rather the era in which he came to prominence.

'There’s this book called Harlem To The Rhine where this colonel talks about going on trips with James Reese Europe, what they played and who they played for,' Moran explains. 'Throughout the book he keeps saying the main focus was for us to present ourselves as respectable human beings. You show up in these small French towns, don’t go wildin’ out. They had these kinds of things to uphold.'

Being able to ‘dignify the race’ by way of music that was singular and cognizant of the black experience in America, rather than in deference to European norms, was uppermost in Europe’s mind. Moran, whose superlative trio The Bandwagon is augmented by guest horn players from Tomorrow’s Warriors, seeks to invoke the composer’s spirit of innovation in pieces such as the texturally adventurous 'The Moaning Trombone', all the while bringing his own creative verve to the table. As was the case with Moran’s acclaimed 2008 Thelonious Monk project, tonight’s performance has a strong visual dimension, with images provided by John Akomfrah, a trailblazer in British multi-media art since the heady days of the Black Audio Film Collective, and Bradford Young, the American cinematographer whose many credits include Selma.

Music aside, Moran, whose commitment to the rich traditions of American culture such as the blues and gospel has never been at odds with his modernism, is well aware of the bigger political backdrop of Europe and the Hellfighters. What they represented for the black community is not to be underestimated in the slightest.

'When they left there was nobody there, but when they returned everybody was there for a historic parade up Fifth Avenue. What that meant for Harlem and New York city, was a rare moment of acknowledging. So, it can’t be that I just play the music and people clap. That’s not what we’re aiming for.' Neither was James Reese Europe.


Jason Moran piano

The Bandwagon

Tarus Mateen bass
Nasheet Waits drums

Tomorrow's Warriors

Ife Ogunjobi trumpet
Joe Bristow trombone
Hanna Mubya bass trombone
Mebrakh Johnson reeds
Kaidi Akinnibi reeds
Alam Nathan reeds
Andy Grappy tuba

Bradford Young cinematographer 
Stefani Saintonge film editor
Harbor Picture Company colour correction 
Jati Lindsay still photography
Bill Strode sound engineer
Jack Jordan AV engineer

Part of The Art of Change

Our 2018 season explores how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.


photo of jason moran

Barbican Meets: Jason Moran


Composer, pianist and visual artist Jason Moran talks to us about early jazz pioneer and African American soldier, James Reese Europe.

black and white photo of soldiers

Long read: Music of conflict

Dr Kate Kennedy looks at a number of solider-composers from World War I, from different backgrounds and nations, exploring the vital importance of music for survival. 

A word from Jason

There is great beauty in the life of Lieutenant James Reese Europe. Within the scholarship of who he was and what his music is, it becomes clear that the history surrounding him is a complex and tightly woven knot. Each strand of the cord holds a uniquely American history, a history that also births another complex knot, jazz.

Europe becomes a freedom fighter. He learns aspects of this at an early age as his violin teacher is the son of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. An early lesson he understands is that sound and freedom aid one another. With his violin he arrives New York on a mission. Much of this mission revolves around music, but his greater mission will be that of demanding equality of African-American performers, people. He finds fame by producing music for many societies: dances, parties, ceremonies, concerts. In 1910 he formed the groundbreaking Clef Club, a union for African-American musicians. His 1911 standing room only Carnegie Hall premiere of the Clef Club Orchestra was a sensation. His work developing dance music with the famous dancing duo, Vernon and Irene Castle, innovated the fox trot tempos and other dance steps. With each of these developments Europe always found a larger stage. The 'stage' will always be a portal, a place to test what is real and surreal.

In World War One he found his largest and most dangerous stage. When he joined the New York's 15th Regiment, later becoming the 369th Infrantry Harlem Hellfighters, he knew African-American soldiers could not fight alongside white soldiers. His writing partner Noble Sissle was shocked Europe signed up. Sissle asked Europe if he could get out of the war, would he? Europe replied 'If I could, I would not. My country called me and I must answer. And if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.'

He indeed startled the world. 100 years later we celebrate a brave individual among a company of soldiers, The Harlem Hellfighters, who predicted a thought Martin Luther King Jr. would write some 47 years later in his letter from a Birmingham jail 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'

Here We Are.

Jason Moran

A word from the event producers

On New Year’s Day 1918, James Reese Europe – an iconic figure in the evolution of African-American music – landed in Brest with the Harlem Hellfighters. As well as their achievements in combat, Europe’s crack military music ensemble popularised the new spirit of jazz to a war-torn French nation fascinated with black culture. And this is but the beginning of a story that continues to fascinate and intrigue.

Tonight’s performance is the culmination of months of research and discovery, from early conversations between 14-18 NOW, Serious and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC – where, crucially, composer and bandleader Jason Moran is Artistic Director for Jazz, and has brought in a creative team that includes film-makers John Akomfrah and Bradford Young.  As the project has evolved, more partners have joined up – the Barbican in London, Jazzfest Berlin, Renfrewshire Leisure and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

The performing group itself is a dynamic transatlantic mix, with Jason Moran’s long established trio, the Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen, Nasheet Waits) at its heart.  Jason was keen to involve a players who correspond to the generation that signed up for the original Hellfighters – the UK musicians are drawn from the alumni of Tomorrow’s Warriors, with the help of their Artistic Director, Gary Crosby.  The line-up is completed by Andy Grappy, who has also been leading a parallel project to introduce teenage musicians at each venue on the tour to James Reese Europe’s original music.

Serious, October 2018

Jason Moran’s new work celebrates a lost hero of African-American music: James Reese Europe, whose band brought the spirit of jazz across the Atlantic during the final turbulent year of the First World War. It’s a fascinating tale – and in musician Jason Moran and visual artists John Akomfrah and Bradford Young, it has found its perfect storytellers.

The Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin is part of the final season of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary. Over the last five years, we have invited more than 300 UK and international artists, in every genre and style, to create new works that explore the global impact of the First World War and its resonance today.

Every 14-18 NOW project has collaboration at its core, and this is no exception. Our thanks go to Serious, the Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, our co-commissioning partners; to the Barbican Centre, Renfrewshire Leisure and the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama for presenting the work in the UK; and to the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Germany, the project’s supporters. Above all else, our huge thanks to Jason Moran, John Akomfrah and the entire creative team behind this remarkable project.

14-18 NOW continues until the end of the year with events including Pages of the Sea, a special nationwide event created by Danny Boyle on beaches around the UK on Sunday 11 November to mark 100 years since Armistice. For more information about this and all our projects, please visit our website.

Jenny Waldman, Director, 14-18 NOW

Barbican Hall


Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin, Serious and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, with support from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany.

Co-produced Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin 

Produced by the Barbican in association with Serious

The producers would also like to thank Louise Holland, Miles Evans PR, the British Library, Professor Catherine Tackley, Tom Perchard, Fraser Kennedy, Gary Crosby and the teams at Serious and 14-18 NOW for helping to bring this project to fruition.

1418 Now company logo