Harlem Hell Fighters introduced American jazz to Europe

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Monday February 04, 2019

From Connecting Vets Radio

Black History Month: How the Harlem Hell Fighters introduced American jazz to Europe
By: Julia Ledoux

Musician Jason Moran is bringing new attention to the sacrifice, service and courage of the Harlem Hell Fighters, an all black unit who spent more time in combat than any other African American unit during World War I. ‘I heard about them by living in Harlem for 25 years,’ said Moran, the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Moran is headed to France to perform the music and stories of the Harlem Hellfighters.

The story of the Harlem Hell Fighters and music, particularly jazz, is intertwined, said Moran. On Jan. 1, 1918, James Reese Europe, an innovator in the field of African-American music who joined the Army shortly after the United States entered World War I, landed in Brest, France with the 369th Infantry, an all-African American unit from New York.

‘These soldiers innately understood that they were signing up for a war they didn’t start,’ said Moran.

A lieutenant, Reese had been ordered to put together the best band he could find.

‘He even got musicians from Puerto Rico,’ Moran said.

So each soldier in the unit fought…and played an instrument.

The unit fought heroically on the battlefield ‘” spending six months in combat, fighting at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, suffering around 1,500 combat casualties, but receiving only 900 replacement soldiers. The nickname ‘hellfighters’ was given to the soldiers by the Germans and the unit was awarded a regimental Croix de Guerre by France.

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