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Jason Moran's new album pays tribute to Black jazz pioneer James Reese Europe

Jason Moran performs at the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival.
Courtesy of Newport Jazz Festival
Jason Moran performs at the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival.

Updated January 2, 2023 at 1:28 PM ET

The inspiration for Jason Moran's new album, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield, came from a distinguished source, who passed it down like a family heirloom. Randy Weston, a fellow pianist-composer in the jazz tradition, was still performing in his mid-80s a decade or so ago, when he welcomed Moran to his home in Brooklyn with an admonishment: You need to know about James Reese Europe. (Weston, an NEA Jazz Master, died in 2018 at 92.)

"He literally sat me down in his apartment with his wife, Fatoumata," Moran tells NPR. "They gave me a five-hour history lesson about James Reese Europe. And Randy Weston has a way of talking about history, and especially diasporic Black history, in relationship to the music we make here in America; he's always trying to find these ties. He locates James Reese Europe as kind of a seminal knot-maker in the line. It's like, 'You've got to know the guy who invented the Big Knot.' And that was really where it started for me."

James Reese Europe was a fearless pioneer in African-American history: a bandleader, composer and organizer who laid the groundwork for jazz in the early 20th century. He also founded and incorporated The Clef Club — a first-of-its-kind musicians' union, contracting agency and social organization whose resident orchestra he brought to Carnegie Hall in 1912. (The 'Concert of Negro Music,' as it was billed, is often remembered today as the first jazz concert in the prestigious concert hall, though "jazz" wasn't a word Europe ever used.)

America's engagement in World War I plunged James Reese Europe into a different theater of operations. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, he formed a regimental band that garnered acclaim for its originality and syncopated fire. Europe's friend Noble Sissle served as his drum major and the lyricist on a number of gripping songs from the front, like "On Patrol in No Man's Land," composed in a field hospital after a gas attack. When the war was over, the 369th Infantry returned as heroes — marching up Fifth Avenue in a victory parade, with Europe's band providing the beat.

For this and other reasons, Europe was a progenitor and pacesetter for American popular music, and for African-American culture; one of his contemporaries, pianist-composer Eubie Blake, later remembered him as "the Martin Luther King of music." Scholars and historians in our time — like Dr. Tammy Kernodle, the University Distinguished Professor of Music at Miami University in Ohio, hold analogous views. "He's such a pivotal figure," Dr. Kernodle tells NPR, "and his influence crosses all types of spheres — social, intellectual, musical, cultural, political — so it's unfortunate that he has not received the kind of attention that he deserves, because there's so much that can be gleaned from his life and his career."

Moran has been doing some of that gleaning, delving into research about Europe's story and music, and considering what he means in the greater scheme of Black life. Several years ago he put together a multimedia tribute titled Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and The Absence Of Ruin, presenting it at festivals abroad and the Kennedy Center. Covering that project for NPR Music in 2018, Michelle Mercer wrote: "There's more purposeful meaning in Moran's song adaptations than a team of the most avid musicologists could hope to find."

The same is now true of From the Dancehall to the Battlefield, which Moran has released digitally through his own YES Records. A brilliant and often startling listen, it's the latest act of radical reimagining from Moran, whose previous forays into Black music history include celebrated tributes to Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. At the album's center strides The Bandwagon, his flagship trio with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, who bring a headlong urgency to some of the songs, like Europe's "Castle House Rag." Elsewhere, Moran expands the frame to include collaborators like alto saxophonist Logan Richardson, clarinetist Darryl Harper and trumpeter David Adewumi.

One elegiac track, "Flee as a Bird to your Mountain," comes linked via interpretive segue to the Albert Ayler free-jazz anthem "Ghosts," soulfully performed by tenor saxophonist Brian Settles. In his liner notes, Moran explains that "Flee as a Bird" was "a piece the 369th Infantry band played when a soldier did not return from the battlefield. Brian represents the restless soul fighting for his last breath before the last shovel full of dirt covers his body."

The album's overture and title track, "From the Dancehall to the Battlefield," features a voiceover by Moran, putting the facts of the case in an urgent and poetic light. He notes that as a boy in Washington, D.C., James Reese Europe studied with violinist Joseph Douglass, grandson of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass — "because Douglass innately knew that liberation not only speaks from the mind, but also from instrument." And he muses about the implications of Europe's syncopated beat — "because syncopation is about urgency, pushing the beat ahead to apply the anticipation of the oncoming downbeat, an outlook that is inherently futuristic."

Retrofitting the notion of Afrofuturism, as Moran explains, was part of the mission for the album. It's one reason that his voiceover concludes with a bequest: "From to the dance hall to the battlefield," he says, "and back home to you." It's why he has incorporated a sing-along into many of his performances over the last several years: using his composition "For James" as a means of activating his audiences, co-implicating them in Europe's historical narrative. I've witnessed this a few times, in settings as intimate as The Village Vanguard and as grand as the Newport Jazz Festival — where, as Moran pointed out from the stage, the stone ramparts and cast-iron cannons at Fort Adams brought a layer of resonance to the music.

"For James" is the natural endpoint on Moran's new album, and he decided to splice a couple of different recordings together. One includes the singing of an audience in Germany; another features the 369 Experience, a band made up of HBCU students, playing the music of the Harlem Hellfighters. The track's final seconds capture Moran addressing these students —invoking Randy Weston, with the understanding that just as the torch was handed over at that moment, it awaits a new generation to keep it moving forward.

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