INTERVIEW: Jason Moran (James Reese Europe and The Absence of Ruin, UK dates plus JazzFest Berlin)

James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters
Photo credit: Underwood Archives/Getty Images
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Composer, pianist and visual JASON MORAN has produced an original response to the extraordinary story of James Reese Europe (1880-1919) and the Harlem Hellfighters, and how France was introduced to the sounds of jazz in the final year of the First World War. There will be performances of the show, entitled James Reese Europe and The Absence of Ruin in the UK in late October and early November, and it is set to be one of the major events of JazzFest Berlin on November 3. Interview by Rachel Coombes:

On New Year’s Day 1918 one of America’s most respected bandleaders, James Reese Europe, landed in Brittany with his military band The Harlem Hellfighters, introducing France for the first time to the sound of New York jazz, amidst the horrors of the First World War. This autumn the American jazz pianist, composer and visual artist Jason Moran has set himself the challenge of reimagining the occasion, paying homage to the momentous impact that this visionary musician and his players had on the course of jazz’s global development.

The Absence of Ruin is a musical and audiovisual story of wartime bravery, racial integration and individual heroism. Having been a darling of high society in New York from the 1910s onwards – during which time he founded and ran the highly successful Clef Club for African-American musicians – James Reese Europe swapped his established life in the U.S. for France’s frontline. Moran aims to cast much-needed light on the man, following on from similar projects he has undertaken on Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk.

“Sometimes I think that artists as multi-faceted as Fats Waller, Monk, and Europe deserve a ‘deeper-dive’”, Moran explains. “Their music is only one layer of the complexity of who they are and the era in which they lived. But more specifically, they all have a relationship to Harlem, the neighbourhood in which I’ve lived for the past 25 years; these projects are slowly painting a portrait of Harlem and its men.”

It seems curious, given his extraordinary talent and personal story, that Europe is not a name recognisable to many. This is, of course, why Moran feels that time is right to re-establish his status, during the centenary year of the conflict’s end.

“The public has paid more attention to the people that Europe influenced, such as Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake and, of course, Duke Ellington. Yet Europe caused jazz culture to really blow up; he’s comparable to, say, Jelly Roll Morton, although Morton lived longer to tell his stories himself. Europe was murdered at 39 years old, a year after returning from France. But his effect is long-lasting and that’s what we want to pay attention to with this project.”

Jason Moran
Publicity picture

It is a hard task for the modern listener to comprehend the significance of this transatlantic musical journey, and perhaps even harder to imagine the arduous circumstances under which Europe performed with his Hellfighters.

“We can definitely say that this was the first time that jazz was heard outside the US – and certainly the first time that a large ensemble like this had travelled across the water,” says Moran. “I keep thinking about these musicians who were on the frontline: they would go off and play a concert having literally just put their life on the line. The players truly got to understand, having arrived in this foreign country, what the power of their music actually was. Before this they’d been playing in front of their peers and their fans; but witnessing the audience appreciate their music across the Atlantic for the first time must have profoundly affected the way in which they felt this music could impact a community. They performed not only in standard concerts, at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées for example, but also in hospitals for the wounded. It’s hard to think of any comparable situation. It would be like Kendrick Lamar today starting a band and going into a warzone.”

Moran will perform with his own trio The Bandwagon, alongside young British players from the Tomorrow’s Warriors stable. Together they will trace the jazz historical line from Europe’s performances in France to the music of later artists whom he influenced, from James P. Johnson to Mary Lou Williams. As with much of his work, Moran has turned to the visual arts to bring his thoughts to their full conception. This time he is collaborating with filmmakers John Akomfrah and Bradford Young to bring a cinematic component to the performance. “John and Bradford have so much experience in capturing images and histories of trauma. Part of what I want the audience to understand here in the show is a person’s relationship to their landscape. The project is called ‘The Absence of Ruin’ – when we think about a ‘ruin’ we conjure up images of Ancient Greece or Rome; this concert is a meditation on the ruins that James Reese Europe leaves. Because music is fleeting, it sets him in a different kind of space.”

Expanding on the way in which his forays into other disciplines have helped him see his own music’s potential, Moran explains: “Spending 14 years working with artists such as Joan Jonas [he was most recently involved in a Tate Modern collaboration with her – AJ Dehany’s review for LJN] has really changed my mind about how music works, and helped define the kind of work that I’ve made. I’ve also witnessed the effect of what the music is outside of ‘jazz’ circles. I think there’s a special attraction that music has always had to people who are looking for abstraction… there’s something that music can narrate even without using text, it paints another kind of picture.”

As someone with the eye of a visual artist, Moran is acutely attuned to the ambiance of jazz’s physical performance spaces.

“About two years ago I started making sculptures and installations based on old New York jazz clubs which don’t exist anymore. I spent a summer in Rome and watched how the city continues to unearth its very complicated and sordid history – it made me feel that there was something to unearth myself in terms of thinking about where we play our music and who we play it for. Those components really make a great concert – the music, the people and the place.

“So, in the past week I was examining a photograph of James Reese Europe conducting, and I noticed that on his conductor’s stand there was a box draped with the American flag. He stands on the flag as he conducts. That’s a powerful visual statement. Rarely do I wish to go back in time, but I do wish to know why he stood on the flag – it’s complicated for him because he’s a performer who was also trying to get rid of the grey area around the portrayal of black identity on stage, for example in vaudeville shows. That’s the complex nature of a figure like Europe – and that’s what we’re going to dive into.” (pp)

The show is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Serious and the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, with support from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.  

Producing partners are Berliner Festspiele / Jazzfest Berlin and the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Germany and Renfrewshire Leisure.


London (Barbican, 30 October) 
Cardiff (Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, 31 October) 
Paisley (Town Hall, 4 November)
Jazzfest Berlin (3 November) 
Kennedy Center, Washington (8 December)

Categories: Features/Interviews

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