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When Jazz Arrived at Carnegie Hall

The Legacy of James Reese Europe

On May 2, 1912, James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra presented the monumental Concert of Negro Music, marking a historic moment when early jazz began to emerge from ragtime in the Northeast and was first heard at Carnegie Hall.

Today, the familiar “hot jazz” and swing of the 1920s and ’30s tends to overshadow the contributions of Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra (who performed a style later called “sweet dances,” a combination of ragtime, blues, marches, minstrelsy, and other popular styles). However, Europe was one of the first musicians to translate “syncopated music” to a large ensemble. The 125-piece orchestra consisted of traditional orchestra instruments combined with mandolins, guitars, and banjos.

Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra helped popularize African American music among Black and white audiences. The Sun (New York) reported that the integrated audience at the Concert of Negro Music “was large and thoroughly well mixed, but united in its applause.”

Clef Club March was the first work on the May 2 concert. According to noted Harlem Renaissance writer, ambassador, professor, and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, “New York had not yet become accustomed to jazz; so when the Clef Club opened its concert with a syncopated march, playing it with a biting attack and an infectious rhythm, and on the finale bursting into singing, the effect can be imagined. The applause became a tumult.”

Later through his partnership with ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, Europe changed the way Americans thought about and participated in social dancing, inventing many classic dance styles, including the fox-trot. Europe also helped introduce jazz overseas when he toured France with his 369th Infantry Regiment (“The Harlem Hellfighters”) in World War I.

An Influencer with Purpose

While he was instrumental in helping to popularize urban African American dance styles, Europe’s goals for his music and performances went well beyond entertaining large crowds. A community organizer as well as a conductor, arranger, and composer, in 1910 Europe founded the Clef Club, a union for New York’s Black musicians. It was effectively the first organization of its kind.

Following the example of leaders like Booker T. Washington, who spoke at the Hall 18 times between 1896 and 1915, Europe aimed to advance and support his community through music.

Europe’s programming, including for the Concert of Negro Music, was also community minded with a focus on equity and access. In the invitation to the concert, he wrote: “The point of this concert is to offer to New Yorkers, for the first time, an opportunity of hearing what the colored people have already accomplished in music, and to prove the value of recognizing the native talent and encouraging the influence of music in the life and development of this people.”

The Concert of Negro Music was in fact a benefit to raise funds for the Music School Settlement for Colored People, a school committed to “the preservation, encouragement, and development along natural lines of the music of the Negro, which is one of the most characteristic musical expressions in this country.”

Hear a recording of “Down Home Rag” by James Reese Europe and Europe’s Orchestra Society, 1913.

Photography: Clef Club Orchestra courtesy of the Eubie Blake Collection, Maryland Historical Society; other assets courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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