When the Blues People Sang America to France
by Curtis Young
the story of how jazz was introduced to France during the Great War 1914-1918
When America joined the war in 1918, its Army was segregated, just as was the rest of America. African-American soldiers were not allowed to engage in combat. They were given little or no training. They came to France armed only with their spirit of resiliance, and their determination to never be defeated. They were assigned to French Command and fought so well that the entire unit earned the Croix de Guerre and over 170 earned the Légion d’Honneur.
Before the war, Harlem had formed its own National Guard Infantry unit, the 15th Infantry Regiment. When it was formed, the commander, Col. William Hayward asked New York’s most popular musician, to form “the best orchestra in the Army.” With that, the African-American, Lt. James Reese Europe stepped into history as one of the leading figures in introducing jazz to France and the world.