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An Illuminated Eulogy For A Jazz Pioneer

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Thursday December 06, 2018

From NPR

A Century Later, An Illuminated Eulogy For A Jazz Pioneer
By: Michelle Mercer

For his multimedia tribute to jazz pioneer and war hero James Reese Europe, Jason Moran doesn’t wear his usual performance attire. His wife, the musician Alicia Hall Moran, had some ideas for a more meaningful costume.

“She told me I needed to experience the same weight and pressure Europe and his soldier musicians did when they performed in uniform overseas,” says Moran.

So as a kind of method acting tool, Moran sits down at the piano in a heavy army green trench coat and tightly laced boots. “Those boots are constricting,” Moran says. “It’s a small gesture, but it helps me remember what black bodies had to take for freedom.”

Costuming is just one of the many ways that Moran seeks to inhabit the life and music of Europe, New York’s most prominent black musician in the 1910s. Eubie Blake called Europe the “Martin Luther King of music” for his innovation as a composer and innovator, as well as his charisma and skill as an organizer. In 1912, for example, Europe gathered 125 musicians on Carnegie Hall’s stage for what’s been called the first concert where jazz was ever heard at the venue. He then risked it all, and changed the course of jazz history, by enlisting in WWI, organizing the first black infantry regiment, the 369th, a group of soldiers and musicians which both fought on the front lines and introduced jazz to France, earning the nickname the Harlem Hellfighters.

“James Reese Europe was basically the ‘big bang’ of jazz,” says Moran. “And somehow he’s usually not more than a footnote in the history books. The people Europe influenced – like Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington – have gotten way, way more attention.”

That under recognition, along with the scope of Europe’s ambition, inspired Moran to make him the final subject in a trilogy of audiovisual performances on key figures in Harlem’s jazz history: Thelonious Monk (IN MY MIND, 2007), Fats Waller (Fats Waller Dance Party, 2011) and now Europe in Harlem Hellfighters: James Reese Europe and The Absence Of Ruin. Moran performed his Europe project this fall in the U.K. and Germany, and will give its U.S. premiere on Saturday, Dec. 8 at the Kennedy Center, where Moran serves as Artistic Director.

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