Jason Moran's new album pays tribute to Black jazz pioneer James Reese Europe Jazz artist Jason Moran revisits the deep influence of Black composer and bandleader James Reese Europe, best known for serving with the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I.


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

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American composer James Reese Europe played a pivotal role in jazz history. He's just now starting to get the recognition he's due, thanks in part to the work of pianist Jason Moran. From member station WRTI, Nate Chinen reports.


NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: History has always lurked and often loomed in the music of Jason Moran. His new album, "From The Dancehall To The Battlefield," is a tribute to James Reese Europe, who brought an early prototype of jazz to Carnegie Hall in 1912, working with Black musicians in a symphonic mode. He then directed a regimental band during the First World War. Dr. Tammy Kernodle is the university distinguished professor of music at Miami University in Ohio.

TAMMY KERNODLE: He's such a pivotal figure, and his influence crosses all types of spheres - social, intellectual, musical, cultural, political. 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.

CHINEN: Jason Moran has been doing some of that gleaning on stage over the last several years and behind the scenes, studying scores and reading accounts of James Reese Europe's music. He's come to the conclusion that Europe is not only a key progenitor of jazz but also a trailblazer in the fight for equality and, in many ways, a role model.

JASON MORAN: One of the reasons I know that his name gets pushed a little bit out of the limelight is, one, there's not a ton of records, but I think the main one is because he walks in with activism on his shoulder, thinking about the well-being of Black people in relationship to the scale of the music.

CHINEN: That sense of social mission flows through Moran's new album, which features a range of ensembles and different approaches to the music. This isn't historical reenactment so much as a vivid reanimation. Again, Dr. Kernodle.

KERNODLE: One of the things that I think stands out about Jason's work is his ability to take what is the historical past and translate it in a way that makes it relevant for contemporary audiences.

CHINEN: A case in point - here is "Castle House Rag," which James Reese Europe wrote in 1914. Moran and his band make the tune feel a bit like a funhouse ride.


CHINEN: Elsewhere on the album, there are more poignant feats of translation. Jason Moran told me about one song that Europe composed on the front lines of World War I, along with lyricist Noble Sissle, who was right there in the trenches with him. They can be heard on this recording from 1919.


NOBLE SISSLE: (Singing) Hello, Central, hello. Hurry, give me 403.

MORAN: So they write the song, "All Of No Man's Land Is Ours," and James is writing songs in the field, you know, with a little portable reed organ because he initially signs up to this war to shoot a machine gun. He didn't want to lead the band. So they could kind of, like, push out these songs that are, like, so of the moment that - and that's almost like a version of an improvisation. You know, like, the war and bombs are literally dropping around us, and he's penning these lyrics.


SISSLE: (Singing) All of no man's land is ours, dear. Now I have come back home to you, my honey true.

MORAN: The way they say, all of no man's land is ours, that initially you think is about that territory to push the Germans back. But no, no man's land is America. No man's land is once you left Harlem, and you went down Fifth Avenue, right? No man's land could be crossing the wrong block. And I felt that when they were going to arrive back to American shores, they would have to rethink those lyrics. There were songs that felt different for them, I'm sure, in Europe when they were playing them and then when they returned home.

CHINEN: That sobering insight is part of what brings James Reese Europe's story into focus on this new album.


CHINEN: Jason Moran's not just conversing with ghosts in this music; he's bringing Europe into modern circulation, less as a legendary forebear than as a living spirit and someone who still holds some knowledge we all could use.


MORAN: Beyond the last row of the seats in the house or the horizon of the trenches ahead, James Reese Europe becomes one of the seminal big bangs in Black music. Let us meditate on that, from the dancehall to the battlefield and back home to you.

CHINEN: For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.

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