Choirs and Other Orchestras

Who held a historic first—a concert of black music for a largely white audience?

James Reese Europe (1880–1919) and his Clef Club Orchestra—the leading black orchestra in the country—held a concert on May 2, 1912, for a largely white audience at Carnegie Hall in New York City for a historic first “Concert of Black Music” by black singers and instrumentalists. The program was more comprehensive than others that Europe had directed and reflected a full range of African-American musical expression, including secular, religious, traditional, modern, vocal, and instrumental selections. Europe was born in Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Washington, D.C. He took violin lessons from Joseph Douglass, who was Frederick Douglass’ grandson, and later switched to the mandolin and piano. To hone his skills in music, Europe was active in musical and dramatic activities at his church. He became active in the musical theater and directed the orchestra for such productions as A Trip to Africa (1904) and Shoo-Fly Regiment (1905). Europe became a successful bandleader and officer in the U.S. Army. On December 29, 1913, Europe, with his Society Orchestra, began a historic series of recordings of dance music for Victor Records. Europe received one of the first contracts that a major record company had given to a black musician, and the musical group received the first ever given to a black orchestra. On January 12 of the next year, Europe led the first black orchestra to perform at a leading white vaudeville theater— the Palace Theater in New York City. During this performance the group complied with the union’s ban on black musicians by appearing on stage and not in the orchestra pit. While touring in 1914, Europe, who often experimented with new musical ideas, was the first bandleader to play W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues.”


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