Vernhettes: African-American Military Bands in France during World War I

Vernhettes AA bandsDan Vernhettes, Commemoration of the Centenary of the Arrival of the African-American Military Bands in France during World War I: A Historical and Musical Approach (Paris: Jazz’edit, 2017). ISBN 9782953483192. 54 pages.

Those who heard John Wallace lead the 20 piece period instrument band playing the music of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hell Fighters at the 2017 HBS Symposium were given a rare treat. That spectacular repertoire, sadly rarely heard today, is recognized as an important link between ragtime and early jazz. Dan Vernhettes’s new book puts some more meat on the bones of this musical story, but more importantly introduces the musical community to little known information about a slew of other Black proto-jazz ensembles that also made their way to France and introduced this music to Europe.

Vernhettes explains that 25 African-American regiments arrived in France in 1918. Most of the regiments had brass bands of equal excellence to that of the Hell Fighters. A key difference for posterity has been their recordings. Unlike the Hell Fighters, Tim Brymn did not record until 1921 and musical leaders such as Jack Thomas, George E. Fulf and Will Vodery did not record at all. Some of the musicians, many from the Hell Fighters band, played in Europe before the US entrance into the fighting, having played in London and Parisian cabarets from 1914 on. Vernhettes does an admirable job in researching the musical careers of both the leaders and the band members. George Edmund Dulf, Jack Thomas and others continued to have musical careers after the war, but gained little or no notoriety. Tim Brymn and Will Vodery went on to participate in the birth of the Broadway musical scene. Some of the band members went on to have brilliant musical careers: Willie “the Lion” Smith, Noble Sissle, Sam Wooding, Rafael Hernandez, Russell Smith, and others. After the war many played in bands led by the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Erskine Tate, Eubie Blake, and King Oliver.

Vernhettes calculates that of the two million American soldiers sent to France, about 150,000 were African-Americans. He estimates that about 1000 musicians played in these bands and all the band leaders except one were African-American. This book which Dan Vernhettes independently published and produces via the print-on-demand method is a handsome publication. It is replete with sixteen color photos of sheet music covers of songs associated with the Hell Fighters and other early jazz repertoire. There are dozens of photos of the bands and individual musicians. The 1919 photo of the Hell Fighters on the “Stockholm” is the sharpest reproduction with the most clarity I’ve seen. It gives the viewer a much better examination of the actual instruments in hand. Also of interest is a schematic map of the Hell Fighters itinerary in France from January 1918 through January 1919.

While most of the book focuses on the history of James Reese Europe and also of his band, there is enticing information about the many other African American musicians and bands active at that time. I would hope other scholars take the lead and unearth more information about those musicians. It may well enhance our understanding of the proto-jazz period.  The author relates a fascinating bit of information regarding Jim Europe’s death. As is well know an argument with his young drummer Herbert Wright, led to being stabbed with a small knife which led to Europe bleeding to death. Wright was sentenced to prison and ultimately released in 1927. He stayed in Boston where he continued his career as a drummer and music teacher. One of his students was a young Boston drummer named Roy Haynes who, of course, went on to become one of the outstanding be-bop drummers and continues to play to this day, now approaching his 93rd birthday. As Vernhettes points out these musical activities in World War I certainly did lead to more Black integration into mainstream American life and most importantly the Harlem Renaissance and the further development of jazz.

-- Jeffrey Nussbaum