Music Reconstructed: Jason Moran, Jazz and the Harlem Hellfighters

Installment 1

This is a special four-part series where historian Charles L. Hughes introduces us to musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era. In this installment, jazz pianist Jason Moran discusses his acclaimed musical celebration of a man he calls “Big Bang of Jazz,” bandleader, arranger and composer James Reese Europe. During World War I, Europe fought as a Lieutenant with the fabled “Harlem Hellfighters” 369th U.S. Infantry and directed the regiment’s renowned band.



Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Jazz, America’s most original sound, was born during the Jim Crow era. And whether we’re studying the Great Migration, World War I or the Harlem Renaissance, we can use Jazz to deepen our understanding of Jim Crow.

I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries and this is "Music Reconstructed," from Teaching Hard History. When music is re-thought, re-mixed and re-imagined, that takes research. And the results can reveal insights into history for educators and students. In this special, four-part series, music expert and historian Charles Hughes brings us conversations with contemporary musicians who are exploring the sounds, songs and stories of the Jim Crow era through their music.

You may remember James Reese Europe from our discussion of the Harlem Hellfighters in episode nine of this season. Europe was a Lieutenant who fought with the fabled 369th U.S. Infantry during World War I. He also organized and directed their acclaimed regimental band. In this episode, Charles introduces us to pianist Jason Moran, who has been re-visiting the work of James Reese Europe, the renowned bandleader, arranger, and composer. Here’s Charles.

Charles Hughes: This week's guest is Jason Moran, a musician and composer and visual artist and educator and curator, whose work fits so, so perfectly within the mission of Teaching Hard History. It would be impossible for me to list all of his accomplishments and accolades. But just know that for over 25 years, he has been putting out acclaimed albums. He's been composing scores for films, including Ava DuVernay‘s Selma and 13th. He's taught at the Manhattan School of Music. He's been the recipient of honors, including a MacArthur fellowship. He's currently the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center. And his current work about the great African-American composer and bandleader James Reese Europe is really why we wanted to spotlight him within this season.

Moran not only thinks about the sounds and the histories of Black life in the early 20th century, but he also uses jazz as a process to help learn from and learn about the past.

I asked him at the beginning of our conversation, "How did you get here? How did you come to do the work that you do now?"

Jason Moran: Wow. That's a hard question to answer without crying and thinking about my mother and father. Because I'd say it really starts at home, Houston, Texas, where I was born in 1975 to parents who are in college during the Black power movement at Texas Southern University. Parents who wanted their three Black sons to have other options. They considered music and the arts in general as a pathway.

And I'd say, you know, my piano lessons at age six through age 13—classical Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart—were awful. I hated it. I hated it tremendously. But at age 13, you know, right when a kid is going through puberty, I heard the music of the great pianist, Thelonious Monk.

And Thelonious Monk was playing a sound at the piano very unlike the music I was playing. Thelonious Monk was playing the blues. Thelonious Monk was playing the Great Migration. Thelonious Monk was playing New York City, you know. He looked like he lived around the corner from me too.

Ever since that time, when I'm 13—and now 46—it is always kind of a striving towards what Thelonious Monk was able to achieve in his music. How he inspired the community of artists and musicians all the way up until today.

But then years later, a great pianist named Randy Weston invited me to his Brooklyn home. And Randy Weston stands at about six foot six. He sits his long body down to a chair. He stares at me in my eyes. And in his deep voice, he says, "Jason, I want to tell you about James Reese Europe." And for the next two hours, he gave me this lecture.

James Reese Europe is who I call "The Big Bang of Jazz." I mean, those songs didn't sound like that until he decided, "Oh, well, you know, we could phrase this a little bit differently. We can add more syncopation here. You can blare more here."

People would walk up and say, "Wait, you all must have some kind of trick instrument because these trumpets don't do that. Those trombones don't make that sound. How are you doing that? This must be a trick instrument."

They were syncopating all of those melodies, moving the beats around, to make the songs have a new kind of dance. The ideas he brings to early 20th century Black music were not only about entertainment, not only about dance, but they were also about the sustainment of Black life off of the stage.

So he started a union for Black musicians called The Clef Club. He was kind of like the first jazz musician to be on the stage at Carnegie hall in 1910 or 11, bringing 165 musicians with him. At the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, right in line and in tandem with both Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois, he’s doing the sonic work that they're doing in their texts and in their activism.

So by the time he decides to go to war in World War I, he signs up to war, to fight for a country that I think have offered Black people less than a promise. But he wants to fight. But since he's such a famous musician, they say, "Please come and lead a band in this war."

So he went on to gather a band for the 369th Infantry. So they will play not only concerts in the squares when they would arrive, but they would also play for the soldiers when they were exiting to go out into the field to battle. And they will play for the soldiers when they came back from battle too. And this regiment band went on to change jazz history.

They bring jazz to Europe and birth that entire storm that continues to live on stages today, across the pond and globally. So they introduced jazz to the world.

After I met Randy Weston, a few years later, there was this commission in England called the 14-18 NOW. And they were looking at World War I and commissioning artists to create pieces about elements of the war. And they asked if I would consider James Reese Europe. And I thought, "Okay, so this is what Randy Weston saw down the line, that he was prepping me for."

Kennedy Center performance, Jason Moran: Hello everyone, this is Jason Moran, the Artistic Director for Jazz here at the Kennedy Center. But right now, I'm standing uptown in Harlem, New York City, at 142nd street and 5th avenue in front of the Harlem Hellfighters monument, dedicated to the soldiers who fought in World War I. James Reese Europe—the composer, the band leader, the organizer, the activist—led a band in World War I. That band went on to shape the future of jazz. So what you're going to see now is a meditation on the life and the power of his music and the legacy we bask in. Hope you enjoy.

Jason Moran: The first song that we perform is called "All of No Man's Land Is Ours." It's a song James Reese Europe wrote literally in the field of battle. That song becomes a diary for him. And then when he's in the hospital, recovering from mustard gas, he continues to write the song.

Music is one of the documents of our time, much like a newspaper comes out every day, you know, the music also tells the thoughts of the day too. All the musicians all around the world are thinking about ways to write something new that tells us about what they feel today. And that becomes a relevant document that we can study over time.

Like for us, our text is the recording. So there's only one record of James Reese, Europe, and the 369th Infantry Band

America keeps itself in a war. That story is happening right now too. All of the armed forces also have regiment bands with them: Army bands, Navy bands, Marine bands, Air Force bands.

The Air Force jazz band would always come to my high school and play and they sounded amazing. So that story is still being told today.

Thinking about that song and about what is no man's land, period—whether we shoot forward into segregation—where’s a no man’s land? And I just kind of go for something that's a little bit more open about what we consider no man's land. Because no man's land in a war is one thing in World War One. But no man's land in my own neighborhood or in my own home or in my own mind is another thing.

Look, we're talking about men who signed up to play music in a war, to go get on a boat and go—for me, what I might consider the first time since the middle passage that some of these ancestors are going back across that dreadful Atlantic Ocean—back across the ocean, playing music, getting to another land, fighting for the freedom of another country. I mean, the layers of things that don't make sense to me as a contemporary citizen.

I think sometimes education is kind of like The Matrix. Sometimes when you're introduced to an idea, you can't walk around and not see the idea everywhere, like literally everywhere. All of a sudden you become awakened to the fact something was sitting there waiting for you to kind of open up what-we-call the third eye to be able to see it.

There's a moment midway in the piece where we perform a piece called "Flee Like a Bird." A song that the soldiers played for the soldiers who did not return from the battlefield; it was the song of mourning.

And I always think that the thread of really great music will always lead you backwards. One of the threads I wanted to make sure I captured was that connection between something that we sometimes hear, ragtime—like Scott Joplin coming off of ice cream truck, you know, in the summertime—all the way up to the rupture that happens to sound in the 1960s with Jimi Hendrix and the Free Jazz Movement. Really looking for a kind of distortion, because America was in a distorting mode itself at that point.

The ideas that were brought about back then are still under discussion today. If we're talking about voting, if we're talking about immigration, rights for women, you know, those issues were problematic then and still are today. Because when we talk about history, we think that it got solved because time passed? That’s incorrect.

Time does not solve it, so it is important for us to understand history, especially here in this adolescent country, to not think that we're in a time that is unprecedented. A hundred years ago, there was a Spanish flu too. People tried to survive that as well. If we don't feel something quite got answered in a way that we understand in 1920, in 2020 do we think it got answered?

Charles Hughes: There's so many lessons from what Jason Moran was talking about in our conversation, but also what he has done in his work and what he continues to do. You know, the way in which he is thinking about how to use music as what he calls the kind of sonic work that is very much like what writers like W. E. B. Du Bois or activist organizations or soldiers or other groups of folks are doing at the same moment.

How can we think about jazz within that context? What is the music of James Reese Europe, or other musicians in ragtime and in all kinds of other styles of the period? What is that telling us? And what is that helping us understand about things like the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration, questions of diaspora, right?

What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen, which is such a critical question within African-American communities of this period? How do we best make equal citizenship into something that is not just this idea, but is something that is real and actually tangible for us.

And I think it's just so interesting to think about the way he's presenting this material and talking about its context, learning the histories behind it, expressing what those histories are. But it's also even in the way that he is musically working with them.

One of my favorite moments is that at the beginning of his re-imagining of "All of No Man's Land Is Ours," you can hear a kind of strange sounding, but also strangely familiar, clicking or repeating, or this textural thing going on. Right? And what I love about that in particular is that from the very beginning, he is saying, "This isn't just about the music of the past, it's about what we are thinking about that music."

And in my experience with students and with educators, I always love centering the fact that not only is the music teaching us something about the past, but it is also helping us speak about the past. Or helping us figure out what it means for us now and how we might use it.

And it's so fantastic that he not only understands the way that that works, in terms of the specific music he's working with. But he is also so insistent on a central core idea about jazz—whether it’s the very early jazz of James Reese Europe, and that world, or it's Thelonious Monk or Randy Weston or any number of the other great musicians and composers, including right up until this day—which is that jazz is an idea, jazz is a process.

The great writer, Ralph Ellison described jazz as "the definition of an artist's identity as an individual, a member of a collective and a link in the chain of tradition." And I think for students and teachers, it's not just crucial to understand how important this music was in thinking about the migration, thinking about the Harlem Renaissance, thinking about questions of war and peace, thinking about questions of citizenship. But also in using jazz as an intellectual and pedagogical strategy. Right? Like, I know that sounds very ambitious, but it's absolutely at the core of what jazz has always been about. What Craig Werner, riffing off of Ellison, called "the jazz impulse", in which quote, "everything remains open to question and re-evaluation."

Jazz insists that we keep learning and that we keep remixing. And that in and of itself, I think is a crucial part of what Jason Moran and really everyone in the jazz tradition is doing. So I'm, I’m so thrilled that he could join us.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That was Jason Moran performing "James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin" at the Kennedy Center in 2021. You can find a complete list of the songs played in this episode in the show notes—along with a full transcript and links to helpful classroom resources. Visit us at

Thanks to Mr. Moran for sharing his insights,and his art with us. And thanks too to my good friend and our music correspondent, historian Charles L. Hughes. Dr. Hughes is the Director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and the author of Why Bushwick Bill Matters and Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.

Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy.

"Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. Our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Cory Collins provides content guidance. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.

I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of History at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History.


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