The Funky Demise of Black Band Culture

Part One

At the intermission of a performance in Boston in 1919, band leader James Reese Europe called an impromptu meeting with his two drummers, Steve and Herbert Wright. Apparently Europe, a man who had high standards for musicianship and on stage professionalism, was upset with the Wright brothers for some transgression. Herbert copped an attitude, threw down his drum sticks and stabbed Europe in the neck with a knife. The bandleader died later that night at a Boston hospital.

This was a horrific end to the life of one of the key figures in establishing bands as essential to the creation of African-American music. Vocal music had been part of cotton picking and church services during slavery days, but over time self made instruments that harked back to Africa and European instruments like pianos were utilized by the enslaved for their own entertainment and that slave masters. After the Civil War freedmen and women collected to sing and play in ensembles that mixed the European scale with sounds and rhythms retained from Africa.

One of the most important of these early band leaders was James Reese Europe. Born in Alabama, eventually a resident of Harlem, and proficient on piano and violin, Europe’s music was a blend of ragtime, classical symphonic elements and what’s viewed as “pre- jazz.” His Clef Club Orchestra performed at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in 1912, playing music solely written by black composers such as Harry T. Burleigh and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Europe was a forward thinker and so, despite the advice that he should play white composers to be more commercial, he believed, “We colored people have our own music that is part of us. It’s a product of our souls. It’s been created by the sufferings and miseries of our race.”

Europe was musically a race man, but he wasn’t afraid to make crossover moves. His orchestra toured behind Irene and Vernon Castle, the white dancers who popularized the foxtrot, a dance that first introduced white Americans to dancing with an emphasis on moving their hips, which was deemed revolutionary (and quietly black.) 

Europe is important to remember for a number of reasons: he established the band (in his case an orchestra) as a laboratory for black musical expression; he celebrated black songwriting composition as a true expression of African-American culture; he collaborated with white creatives to expand his audience; he wasn’t affair to discipline his band members and, sometimes said band members, took offense.

If we view Jim Europe as ground zero for black musical ensembles, then whether they were called orchestras, large swing bands, bebop combos, blues, rhythm & blues, rock & roll bands, session cats or funk groups, these collectives were major sites of innovation. From Jimmy Lunceford to Duke Ellington’s orchestras, Miles Davis’ many bands to Little Richard’s Upsetters, Muddy Waters electric blues band to Motown’s Funk Brothers session players, Stax’s Booker T & the MGs to James Brown’s JBs, Sly & the Family Stone to the Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic to Earth, Wind & Fire bands swung, rocked, jammed and funked joyously from the 1920s into the 1980s.

That once dynamic musical tree has pretty much atrophied with funk the last full on band music to emerge from black America. Basically into the 21st century black bands have become irrelevant to production of commercial black music, which reflects aesthetic changes driven by technology, industry economics, and the same social policies that helped created hip hop.