By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
In 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles ended WWI, two years after the U.S. entered the fight with France and Great Britain against Germany, 44 Black colleges existed,
Today, 100 years later, there are 101 public and private HBCUs, and they and their students are playing an important part in reclaiming the role African-American soldiers and artists played in that conflict .
Thanks to the United States World War I Centennial Commission, Coca Cola and the network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a band of 42 accomplished musicians from HBCUs are traveling around the country playing the sounds of the 369th Infantry Regimental Band that made its mark in history during WWI and WWII.
The old wartime regimental band was reincarnated four years ago in the form of the 369th Experience. Most of the new band’s 42 members are current students or pending graduates of the HBCUs.
Its namesake, the 369th Infantry Regimental Band of WWI and WWII, used musical instruments and its artists with a flair for Jazz, originated by African-Americans, to establish its legacy, and introduce the art form to the Europeans.
The WWI band was formed to accompany the 369th Infantry Regiment, a group of Black fighting troops. Its assignment was to boost the morale of the Black troops comprising the 369th Infantry Regiment.
formerly known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment and commonly referred to as the Harlem Hellfighters.
The Black soldiers in the field fought valiantly with their grit and guns to help the allies win WWI and show that Black men could fight for freedom.
The accompanying band was led by and composed of established musical professionals. In the process of performing their assignment, they also exported Jazz music, crafted by African-Americans to the allied nations.
One of the band’s leaders, James Reese Europe was a respected artist in Harlem music circles before he was assigned to the military band. He went on to direct the regimental band to great acclaim.
In February and March 1918, James Reese Europe and his military band traveled more than 2,000 miles in France, performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians. Europe’s “Hellfighters” also made their first recordings in France for the Pathé brothers.
According to the key organizers of the current project involving HBCU students, The 369th Experience is designed to introduce people of all cultures, especially the band members, to the band’s legacy and the role it and the fighting soldiers of the 369th played in WWI.
Also, a goal is to use the band to display the Jazz music art form to audiences domestically and abroad.
It is taking place at a time when HIP-HOP and Neo-soul are overshadowing Jazz as an art form among Black people, despite efforts since the 1970s, to repackage Jazz as a popular and “profitable” genre of music to the masses.
“We chose HBCU band students because we knew we would get the best students in terms of music and marching formation!” said Stephany B. O’Neal, publicity director for the outfit. “We had to use HBCUs to even come close to representing the Harlem Hellfighters and James Reese Europe.
“This is a totally historic event,” she continued. “Bringing the Harlem Hellfighters full circle. They won all kinds of awards from the French and totally changed the music industry in Europe.
“Like the Black soldiers who fought on the battlefield, after the war, the band suffered many slights, despite the respect the French soldiers and later the governments bestowed upon them,” O’Neal said.
She said after the war, in Paris, France, the band was not allowed to join in the victory parade with the Americans when they marched down the Champs Elysees.
To right that wrong, plans are in the works for the 369th Experience Band to travel to Versailles, France at the upcoming International observance of the Centennial of the signing of the Treaty which ended WWI.
O’Neal is also coordinating fundraising efforts to get the 369th Experience to Versailles by June 28, the 100th anniversary of that event.
O’Neal said to get the band and other support crew to France will cost about $300,000 which she does not have available. She is hoping for a miracle from a sympathetic donor to meet the short deadline and is soliciting contributions on the 369th web page. (Go to the 369th site online to donate.)
“Having our band there for the signing of the Treaty that ended the war 100 years later to honor the soldiers would be totally mind-blowing and another example of how the French and Europeans help to validate our only truly American art form –JAZZ.”
During the 2019 Memorial Day Weekend, in conjunction with New York’s annual Fleet Week Observance, the band performed at Rockefeller Center, Marcus Garvey Park, the Liberty Park, and in New Jersey at Harlem One Stop, a historical site.
The 369th Experience will make this a traditional visit during the coming years to perform in NY and appear at various venues in Harlem.
The effort to recreate the 369th Infantry Regimental Band was launched in 2013.
After the plea was made before the House Appropriation Committee, it took several years before funding for the project was first submitted.
The U.S. Army School of Music, and their PR Personnel, Noble Sissle, Jr., son of one of the original band members, and O’Neal, even before the funding was secured, hammered together the framework and foundation of the band’s operation.
They developed the audition criteria, auditioned the students online, hired a band leader who worked at Ohio State and once all the students were selected, began rehearsing.
“We could not get all the students in one place to rehearse and engage them,” said O’Neal, “so we did it online and in sections and we had some problems. But Coke funded a better online conferencing system, so we managed to do a lot of work even before the band members and directors met each other in person.”
Although there were 65 members of the original 365th Infantry Regimental Band, currently there are 42 members from HBCUs and 1 historically white school.
Prairie View, Florida A&M and Southern University, all southern HBCUs, have the most representatives on the band.
O’Neal said the fact that two descendants of the original band leaders – Noble Sissle, Jr. and James Reese Europe, IV – travel with the 369th Experience “is an asset and living history for the young men to learn first-hand about those men and WWI.”
Eventually the band’s membership will be expanded to 65, O’Neal said. She said that recruiting for future membership is ongoing. She said HBCU veteran band members alert and recruit band members from their respective schools to apply to be a member.
People who are interested should go to the 369th website to apply for an audition, O’Neal said.
After WWI, the original band continued to perform notably in France and Great Britain to great acclaim before commoners and royalty, O’Neal said.
“Many of band members and soldiers who fought on the battlefield appreciated how the French treated them with respect and dignity,” she said. “So many of them stayed or went back to Europe.”
After the war, O’Neal said the band was important in fueling the Harlem Renaissance. Black writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes or musicians such as Louis Armstrong and a young Billie Holiday joined dancers and actors in the “new Negro” movement, she said.
The band recorded a number of albums featuring the number of Black music favorites at the time Including the pop music “I Am Just Wild About Harry,” and others.
Unfortunately, in May of 1919, when the band went back to New York as the war was ending, a fellow band member who claimed James Reese Europe treated him unfairly, stabbed the band leader during a recording session. He bled to death hours later at a Harlem Hospital.
“Apart from musical instruction, and uniforms and other things to prepare the students, we give them a good history of WWI and the role the band and the fighting unit played,” said O’Neal. “The young men had no idea about that time in history. We barely remember Vietnam or other recent wars. It gives them a sense of the importance of the work and role of those men they are representing.”