Dispatched from its native New York to France in 1917, the 369th Infantry Regiment was the first African American fighting unit to join the Allied forces in France. The so-called Harlem Hell-fighters won renown for their toughness in combat, but the unit’s band, led by James Reese Europe, also gained plenty of admirers. Their jazz and ragtime music was received with wild appreciation by the French, though the bandleader never returned to capitalise on the acclaim. Just months after his return to the US, aged 39, Europe died at the hands of his drummer.
Jason Moran, one of the most original musicians and thinkers in contemporary jazz, and John Akomfrah, the widely acclaimed British artist and filmmaker, tell the bandleader’s story in this ambitious multi-dimensional piece. Taking in both archive audiovisual material and live music, James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin moves through past, present and future as it reflects on the African American presence in Europe during the war – and the marks it left here during the subsequent century.
‘The concert emerges as a document of a story passed down. John Akomfrah and I also talked about the idea of the “absence of ruin”, an idea presented by Orlando Patterson in relationship to how African Americans have very few structures that tell us about where we have been. So, how do African Americans deal with histories vanishing constantly, and how does the music becomes the structure?’
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Serious and The John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts