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Harlem Hellfighters on a Latin Beat tells the true story of a group of 16 Puerto Rican musicians, including future famed composer Rafael Hernández, who joined the band of the 369th Infantry Company, led by the already-famous musician James Reese Europe. The 369th was an all-Black regiment from Harlem. The regiment’s band played and fought bravely in France during WWI and were decorated for their service. The collaboration led to the early development of Latin jazz.

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World War I - The Basics

The immediate cause of World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which encompassed much of today’s southeastern Europe) by a Slavic nationalist who sought a separate country for his ethnic group. But the century leading up to the war created the conditions for conflict to ignite. Most crucially, European nations had entered into various mutual defense alliances, pledging to come to each other’s aid in the event of a war–which happened when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering each nation’s allies into automatic declarations of war. Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy (called the Central Powers) were at war against Serbia’s allies, Russia, France, and Britain (the Allied Powers). 

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The US in WWI

Under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, the US maintained a policy of neutrality for the first three years of the war. Despite this, the US provided supplies and credit to the Allied Powers, and had a financial stake in the outcome of the war.

Many US citizens were supportive of neutrality, though many hoped for the success of the Allied Powers. There was a movement for war preparedness, particularly in the Eastern US, due to its proximity to Europe. Thus, the Harlem Hellfighters began as the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, the nation’s first Black National Guard unit.

The US entry into the war was precipitated by several events. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine sank the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, killing 1,197 people, including 128 Americans. In January 1917, German submarines were again targeting merchant vessels. That same month, Germany, in its quest for additional allies, sent a telegram to Mexico offering them US territory if they attacked the US on Germany’s behalf. Known as the Zimmerman Telegram, it was intercepted by Britain and given to the US. This shifted US sentiment toward active involvement in the war. On April 6, 1917, with the support of President Wilson, Congress declared war on Germany and officially entered WWI.

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The US Military in 1917

The US military in early 1917 was not ready for a war. A draft was instituted to supply the manpower, and training camps were hastily built. Military bands were a part of this expansion effort: General John J. Pershing, the commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (as the wartime military was known) believed in the power of military bands to improve morale. He petitioned Congress to authorize 20 additional bands, and increased the number of musicians in each band from 28 to 48.

The military remained segregated along Black-white racial lines, as did the nation as a whole. More than 370,000 Black Americans served in the war, some out of a sense of patriotism and desire to prove their worth and equality as Americans. Thirteen percent of the American forces were Black Americans, but 89% were in non-combatant roles due to discrimination. The Harlem Hellfighters became part of one of two combat regiments of Black soldiers. After the war, several Hellfighters collaborated to produce a book titled Complete History of the Colored Soldiers in the World War, subtitled “Authentic Story of the Greatest War of Civilized Times and What the Colored Man Did to Uphold Democracy and Liberty.” In it, they laid out some of their reasons for serving:  

…I was fighting because I wanted other oppressed people to know the meaning of democracy and enjoy it. I told him that millions of Americans fought for four years for us Negroes to get it and now it was only right that we should fight for all we were worth to help other people get the same thing…We are supposed to have had equal rights for fifty years now, but many times we have thought that those rights have been denied us, and many times it has been held that we have never done anything to deserve them. I told him that now is our opportunity to prove what we can do.

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James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe, leader of the Harlem Hellfighters’ regimental band, was one of the many Black Americans who served in WWI. He was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1880. His father, Henry Europe, was a native of Alabama and worked as a “U.S. Gauger,” which likely means he worked in customs in the Port of Mobile, and was active in the Republican Party. His mother Lorraine was also an Alabama native and an amateur musician. The family moved from Mobile to Washington, DC when young Jim was a child, in search of better opportunities for the four children: Jim, Ida, John, and Mary.

There, Europe studied violin and piano, and attended grade school and high school in Washington’s segregated public school system.  A 1912 The Crisis profile of Europe lists his music tutors throughout his life as Enrico Hurlei, assistant director of the US Marine Band, Hans HankeHenry Burleigh, and Melville Charlton – names that, at the time, formed an impressive set of teachers.  

Europe moved to New York City after the death of his father around 1900. There, he found work as a cabaret pianist and entered the city’s successful Black musical theatre scene, writing songs and serving as music director for musical comedies. He toured with several shows, honing his conducting skills. This was the era of ragtime, a fast, syncopated musical style created by Black pianists and popular across the country.

Additionally, at the time, Black composers and musicians used minstrel show tropes in their writing in order to attract audiences, as that was a popular format during that era, and one that the white public liked. But a shift was happening, pushed by Europe and his contemporaries (including Bert Williams and Will Marion Cook, both of whom he worked with): the opportunity to include more truly “Afro-American” material in their compositions and productions. Europe became convinced that there was a purely Afro-American musical style he could develop.

In 1910, Europe co-founded The Clef Club, a central organization for Black musicians in New York City. The Clef Club functioned as a union and booking agency. Its goal was to help Black performers get better contracts, better pay, and to raise their status in the eyes of the public. At the time, dance bands were popular, and The Clef Club soon had a monopoly on the city’s dance band scene: its smaller bands and orchestras played at all of the high society social functions.

The Clef Club also had its own orchestra, directed by Europe, who had a talent for marketing as well as music. In May of 1912, he staged “A Concert of Negro Music” at Carnegie Hall as a benefit for a music school for Black Americans. In it, Europe attempted to include all forms of Black American music, from ragtime to arias to church music. This was so successful that he staged concerts there in 1913 and 1914, the latter time with his National Negro Orchestra, founded after he left The Clef Club.

Europe was making progress on developing his musical style. In a 1914 interview in the New York Evening Post, he explained some of the intricacies of the orchestration he used in his Carnegie Hall performances:

Although we have first violins, he said, the place of the second violins with us is taken by mandolins and banjos. This gives that peculiar strumming accompaniment . . . which is something like that of the Russian balalaika orchestra. . . . For background, we employ 10 pianos. That, in itself, is sufficient to amuse the average white musician who attends one of our concerts for the first time. The result, however, is a background of chords which are essentially typical of Negro harmony.

In 1913, Europe led what was likely the first Black band to make a sound recording, with the Victor Talking Talking Machine Company.

Europe also had a fruitful artistic association with Irene and Vernon Castle, the white husband-and-wife dance team who popularized and invented many social dances in the 1910s. Europe was their bandleader. Together, the trio invented both the fox-trot and the turkey trot. 

In 1916, Europe joined the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, the nation’s first Black National Guard unit, passed the officer’s exam, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. There he met Colonel William Hayward, a white lawyer and judge, who was commander of the 15th, and who developed a reputation of being an advocate for fair treatment for the 15th in the Army. Hayward asked Europe to organize a regimental band; Europe agreed to do so with an eye toward furthering his ambitions for a national Black symphony. Hayward contributed to the band by raising money, and Europe by recruiting musicians, a difficult task given the National Guard’s low pay. In particular he struggled to recruit clarinet players. Europe may have met Puerto Rican musicians in Florida during his many tours, and he was personally familiar with several who had played in his orchestras. In May 1917 he traveled to San Juan to recruit additional musicians for the regiment’s band, aware of the rigorous musical training and tradition of the island’s municipal bands.

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Puerto Rico in 1917

Europe’s recruiting trip to Puerto Rico was also influenced by the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, which made Puerto Ricans US citizens and therefore eligible for military draft. This came as a surprise to many of the island’s residents. 

Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony from 1493 until the Spanish American War of 1898. The Spanish American War, primarily a conflict over Cuban independence, ended with the Treaty of Paris, in which Spain ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States, and gave the US temporary control of Cuba. Puerto Rico became a United States territory. Puerto Ricans, like others in the Spanish Caribbean, were a mixed-race population of primarily Spanish, African, and Native American backgrounds, with some Asian and other European heritages.

In the aftermath of the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Rico was governed first by a series of US military governors. In 1900, the Foraker Act established the island’s civil government and defined its status as a territory–under the protection of the US, and subject to all federal laws, but its residents were not made US citizens. A civilian governor from the US was to be appointed as the head of the Puerto Rican executive branch, and in reality held all the power.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed his classmate (from his doctoral student days at Johns Hopkins University) Arthur Yager as the ninth civilian governor of Puerto Rico. Yager was a history professor and college president and had spent his entire career, minus his time at Johns Hopkins, in his native state of Kentucky. Wilson appointed Yager in hopes of furthering his agenda in Puerto Rico: expanding infrastructure, public health, literacy, and efficient, non-corrupt government. Yager lobbied for passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, which, in addition to conferring citizenship, also granted Puerto Ricans the right to freely elect members of the island’s legislative branches, though those branches remained under the veto power of US-appointed governors.

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Rafael Hernández

One of the musicians Europe recruited in San Juan was Rafael Hernández, then a 26-year-old member of San Juan’s municipal band. Hernández was born October 24, 1891, in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Aguadilla was a small city of around 17,000 at the time, and it had the reputation of being an incubator of musical talent. Hernández’s parents were Afro-Puerto Rican tobacco workers. All four Hernández children studied music with the local municipal band directors. At the time, public music and music education in Puerto Rico was through municipal bands, which offered instruction in exchange for financial support from town administrations. Training was rigorous and young Rafael learned six instruments: cornet, trombone, euphonium, guitar, violin, and piano; his sister Victoria Hernández specialized in violin, cello, and piano. Brother Jesús was a clarinetist. They would have learned music theory, how to read music, and sight singing, all elements of formal musical training that many Black Americans at the time did not have access to due to segregation and discrimination.

Hernández’s musical career began when he went on tour with a Japanese circus; he then settled in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s largest city, and joined the municipal band and the Orquesta Sinfónica.

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The Harlem Hellfighters in France

After training in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where the regiment faced violent racism, they shipped out for France, arriving on New Year’s Day, 1918. Upon disembarking, Europe’s band surprised the locals by launching into a jazz rendition of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

The regiment was set to work unloading ships and building roads and railways, work assigned because of their race, while the band toured, raising morale at hospitals. Hayward was discontent: his troops had come for combat, not labor. In March 1918, the regiment was renamed the US 369th Infantry Regiment and assigned to fight with a French unit. This was a convenient decision for American military commanders: they were unwilling to have Black American soldiers fight alongside white American soldiers, and they were under pressure from French and English allies to supply reinforcements. The French military, which included soldiers of all races from France’s colonies, didn’t care what color the Americans coming to help them were.

The 369th fought alongside the French on the front lines for 191 days, the longest of any American regiment of its size. They were renowned for their bravery and skill. They also lost the most men: 1,400 perished in France. During their combat service the regiment gained the nickname “Harlem Hellfighters,” which may have come from terrified Germans or been invented by the press. Collectively, the unit received the highest honor possible from the French government, the Croix de Guerre, in addition to 171 individual medals. Europe, leader of a machine gun unit as well as the band, was injured by poison gas. While recovering in a field hospital he wrote “On Patrol in No Man’s Land,” one of his most famous songs. After his convalescence he was declared unready to return to combat and sent to lead the band in performances in Paris, where crowds went wild upon hearing jazz for the first time.

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After the War

WWI ended on November 11, 1918. The Hellfighters arrived back in New York on February 12, 1919. The next week, the band led the triumphant regiment in a parade up Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street to 145th Street. “Hundreds of thousands” of spectators turned out, according to The New York Times, who subtitled their front-page coverage of the parade “Harlem Mad with Joy Over Return of Its Own.”

The regimental band was discharged from service, recorded 24 tracks, and embarked on a 10-week tour of major US cities. On May 9, in Boston, Europe was stabbed in the neck by Herbert Wright, a drummer in the band. Europe died of this wound. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  

Rafael Hernández and his sister Victoria settled in New York City after the war. He continued composing and formed and led two Latin bands which toured widely. In 1927, Victoria opened Almacenes Hernández, in East Harlem at 1735 Madison Avenue. She billed it as the city’s first Puerto Rican music store, and there handled the business side of her brother’s musical career, as well as the careers of other Latin musicians. In 1969, Victoria sold Almacenes Hernández to Mike Amadeo, who runs it as Casa Amadeo today. It is now located in Longwood, The Bronx. 

In 1932, Hernández relocated to Mexico to further his musical studies and direct an orchestra. He became an acclaimed composer of scores for Mexican films. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1947, where he directed the state’s radio orchestra. He passed away in 1965, having composed more than 3,000 songs. His work is widely known across Latin America to this day. 

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