David Gilbert: James Reese Europe at the Grammys

The Product of Our Souls, book and CDToday we welcome a guest post from David Gilbert, author of The Product of Our Souls:  The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace. The CD companion to the book came out in the summer of 2018 and his liner note essay has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Album Notes category ).

The Grammy Awards will be presented this Sunday, February 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.

The Product of Our Souls is available now in both print and ebook editions.


James Reese Europe at the Grammys

One hundred years ago this May, James Reese Europe died. Having survived mustard gas and German sneak attacks along the Rhine as a member of the Harlem Hell Fighters during World War I, Europe was murdered by one of his own regiment band’s drummers from the war while the Hell Fighters Marching Band took a set break in Boston’s Mechanic’s Hall. Europe’s death in 1919, both untimely and tragic as it was, perhaps partly explains why he is not better remembered. Although he had as much influence on laying the groundwork for the rise of jazz in New York City as anyone, James Reese Europe missed out on the 1920s, and the historical monographs.

Yet James Europe remains relevant, not only because Archeophone Records recently released a complete collection of Europe’s Society Orchestra recordings from 1913 and 1914—a collection that is up for a Grammy Award this weekend. Europe’s struggles in navigating America’s burgeoning, early-twentieth-century entertainment markets, and the ways he negotiated the racial opportunities and racist expectations of popular music and stage performance, offered blueprints for thousands of African-American entertainers in the century since. His successes and failures can help us understand the complex predicaments today’s pop stars often face.

As W.E.B. Du Bois both prescribed and predicted in The Souls of Black Folk of 1903, James Europe used music to express both his Americanness and his African-Americanness. Like many of the playwrights, actors, dancers, and musicians with whom Europe worked and leisured at the Hotel Marshall on West Fifty-third Street, in pre-WWI Manhattan, he used culture to represent both American national character and black American exceptionalism. He told white newspapers that black music was a “product of our souls,” even as he made sure to emphasize to black reporters how modern, refined, and financially successful his bands, symphony orchestras, and 200-man labor union was. Inspired by Dvorak, Europe wanted to add his voice to turn-of-the-twentieth century debates about American national culture; yet, as a leading spokesperson for black culture and a self-conscious race man, he hoped to instigate new representations of black people and black citizenship.

James Europe’s story is instructive because it illustrates some of the ways that African Americans used music to demand respect, dignity, and fairness in an America that did not want to give those things. During the early years of Jim Crow, Europe used music to pronounce that Black Lives Matter. He was only partially successful. Yes, his multifaceted iterations of dance, stage, and art music allowed him to challenge white supremacist notions of black inferiority. But performing in a cultural marketplace also boxed him into narrow categories of race. Playing in the shadow of minstrelsy and invoking the Social Darwinist-era notions of essential racial difference restricted Europe’s cultural radicalism and commodified his work into narrow notions of what black culture could mean.

Today America’s leading pop artists negotiate many of the same opportunities and limitations. Janelle Monae is very clear about trying to break boundaries, and she’s successful in so many ways. Yet for every door she knocks down, there are countless others that try to box her in. To my ears, that’s what Dirty Computer is all about. In it, Monae demands to be taken as a serious pop artist (unlike in Europe’s day, this is no longer a contradiction). Yet she also must scream that she too is “American.” And like Childish Gambino, who went right to the minstrel source in his remarkable, “This is America,” black artists still have to walk the tightrope of double consciousness as they attempt to portray themselves and their artistic visions of the world, all the while recognizing the power of both American culture industries and the nation’s racial norms to limit and appropriate them.

“The history of the American Negro,” Du Bois wrote in 1903, “is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self…He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American…This then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture.”

In some ways, then, it makes sense that James Reese Europe is up for a Grammy alongside Monae and Gambino. It took a century, but it’s taken the country even longer.


David Gilbert’s first book, The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, was published by UNC Press in 2015. The CD companion to the book came out in the summer of 2018 and his liner note essay has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Album Notes category.  You can read his previous UNC Press Blog posts here.  Check out this interview with him to learn more.