New PBS Arts Series to feature the 369th Experience
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
The Centennial Commission got a wonderful communication this week -- an email from Judy Meschel, Producer for Local Projects at WETA Television, the Public Broadcasting for Greater Washington, D.C. Judy was letting us know that she had just finished producing a segment for WETA on James Reese Europe, the legendary WWI Harlem Hellfighter Jazz Band Leader. The new WETA Arts segment prominently features Europe's service with the 369th during the war. They show a recent performance at the Kennedy Center by our Commission-sponsored 369th Experience, they have interviews with participating musicians Christian and Jaden Adkins about their experience performing in the special 369th tribute band, they feature interviews with the Europe's descendants, along with Noble Sissle, Jason Moran, and others. The WETA Arts segment is scheduled to start airing on Friday, February 1 at 8:30pm on WETA TV 26 -- and the segment will be available online starting Saturday February 2 at https://watch.weta.org/show/weta-arts/. We were thrilled by the news, and begged Judy to give us details. Judy generously agreed to answer a few questions about the show for our newsletter.
Tell us about this upcoming program -- Sounds like an amazing project. What will we see/hear?
As a public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C., WETA is committed to showcasing the important artistic work people are producing in the nation’s capital.
The first segment of the February episode of WETA Arts is devoted to the powerful story of James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters. We follow students from The 369th Experience into the Kennedy Center, where they perform on Millennium Stage.
Descendants of the Harlem Hellfighters explain the historical importance of James Reese Europe and the band he created, including extensive interviews with James Reese Europe III and Noble Sissle Jr..
We hear the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, Jason Moran, discuss the musical importance of James Reese Europe, as well as excerpts from his new composition James Reese Europe and The Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin, which had its US premiere at the Kennedy Center.
Also featured in the piece are interviews with H. B. Barnum and 369th Experience band members Jaden and Christian Adkins that uncover more about their experience. It’s all illustrated with extensive and thorough archival material throughout.
As a producer who specializes in archival documentaries, in addition to being honored to try to do justice to this story, I find it very satisfying to be able to bring so much archival material to public attention.
How did the Harlem Hellfighters music come to be part of this great arts series? What was your research process? What was your role overall in the effort?
The 369th Experience performed at Millennium Stage on November 12, 2018, and Jason Moran’s band performed at the Eisenhower Theater on December 8, 2018. Those shows focused us on James Reese Europe and the Hellfighters.
The WETA Arts segment includes those performances, and also add an archival recording of Castle Walk, recorded by the Metropolitan Military Band in 1916, available through the Library of Congress. The performances at the Kennedy Center by the 369th Experience and by Jason Moran were recorded by Kennedy Center staff, and footage related to these performances was generously provided by the Kennedy Center in support of WETA Arts.
In addition to the performance footage, I conducted additional interviews, shot supplemental footage, and uncovered additional materials to support my script. Because of my extensive archival research background, I am well-versed in navigating the National Archives and Library of Congress collections.
There are also key photos in the piece sourced from the New York Public Library - the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture staff were great to work with. I even got a photo from an organist in England who has restored a folding reed organ that was used in WWI, to illustrate the kind of instrument James Reese Europe took with him to the front. Then were photos to get of the Howard U and DSU marching bands…it’s been a great treasure hunt and a real collaborative effort.
By the way, the sheet music that appears in the show is also from the Library of Congress’s Music Division. Both the Music Division and the Prints and Photographs Division were instrumental in supporting the archival research that went into this piece. People were very generous with their time.
Once all the video and audio pieces were in place, we had a finished segment, which became the first part of a four-segment half-hour show called WETA Arts. If you are in DC you can see it on WETA Channel 26 in DC starting Feb 1 at 8:30, and online starting on Feb 2 at https://watch.weta.org/show/weta-arts/ All in all, it took about 8 weeks from the first shoot to the final edit.
How did the 369th story resonate for you, personally? What did you learn about them from this experience of producing the show? What did you take away?
Something difficult about making a show like this is that there are words that are not acceptable today that show up in photo and footage descriptions that were written back in the day. In order to find the materials you have to use those words in searches, and be prepared to read them in results. That’s tough.
It’s one thing to be faced with prejudiced words in databases. It’s another to hear the hard truth of the stories in person. In his interview, Jason Moran talked about writer Orlando Patterson’s idea, “absence of ruin”, how African Americans are still seeking monuments that document existence. I was moved by the great generosity of the Europe family and Mr. Sissle Jr. in sharing their family stories. So it is important to tell them, and to take great care in retelling them – these become the documents that we will all rely on.
This piece centers on the amazing genius and force of will that was James Reese Europe. But in telling his story we should not lose track of the thousands of troops who fought in the 369th, who also rose up against indignity and prejudice to serve their country and fight for themselves as well. Nor should we lose track of the 367th Buffaloes, the 814th Infantry, the 505th Engineers, or other African American soldiers who faced the same battles, but because they were not led by a giant of history have less-well-known stories.
Why does this story, of these musicians, continue to inspire people/artists to this day? And why is it important to preserve these stories -- the war was awful, it was 100 years ago, it dealt with issues that are not necessarily relevant, etc. etc.?
The music is relevant today in and of itself and through its impact on what American music has become. Jason Moran traces Europe’s musical innovations to Duke Ellington, to Billie Holiday, to McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. The unbelievable musicianship is inspirational. The music inspires new music. And it is a cornerstone for other forms of art; for film and television describing the 1920s, the music instantly communicates where you are in history.
The courage of James Reese Europe to stand up for his rights as a human being and for recognition of his talent in the face of adversity is truly inspirational. I find that the choice to fight and perhaps die for a nation that is unjust to you inspires significant reflection in us all.
The incredible fierceness and determination of this man, James Reese Europe, to push the movement forward is why I chose the photo that ends the segment. Although the piece focuses on Europe and Sissle, let’s not take away from the fact that thousands, whose names are less well known, went on this march, into war and into history.