Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon
James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: From the Dancehall to the Battlefield

Berklee Performance Center

Brilliant pianist, composer, and multimedia artist Jason Moran turns his boundless creativity and curiosity to a celebration of the life of often-overlooked African American musical pioneer James Reese Europe.  

Europe was already a key figure in the development of jazz as a genre, when, during his service in the First World War, he established a band that would change the course of music history. As the bandleader for the 369th Infantry Regiment (the “Harlem Hellfighters”), Europe is credited with introducing jazz music to the European continent and helping spread African American culture across the world. 

For this program, entitled James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: From the Dancehall to the Battlefield, Moran and his Bandwagon trio augment their numbers with a seven-piece horn section. Moran shares archival photos, recordings, and original multimedia creations to help build his musical monument to a truly transformational artist.


Jason Moran, piano
Tarus Mateen, bass
Nasheet  Waits, drums
Immanuel Wilkins, alto sax
Jose Davila, tuba 
Darryl Harper, flute & clarinet
David Adewumi, trumpet
Brian Settles, tenor sax
Reginald Cyntje, trombone
Chris Bates, trombone


Bradford Young, cinematographer
Stefani Saintonge, film editor
Harbor Picture Company, color correction
John Akomfrah, dramaturge
Stephany Neal, historian
Jati Lindsay, still photography

Please note: this performance was announced (and might appear elsewhere) with a slightly different title and band name, but the performance is the same. Only the billing has changed.


Jason Moran shares information on his project.

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 in New York on a mission. Much of this mission revolves around music, but his greater mission will be that of demanding equality for 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 & 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 for a place to test what is real and surreal.

In WW1, he found his largest and most dangerous stage. When he joined New York's 15th Regiment, later becoming the 369th Infantry 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 predict 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."

Hear We Are. 

Jason Moran

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James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin, Serious, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the 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.  

“We already know that Jason Moran is stunningly and profoundly original, even in his treatment of existing material. Knowing it doesn’t prepare one for the stark, sublime beauty of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin.”

Washington Post

“The most provocative thinker in current jazz. ”

Rolling Stone

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