World War I

by Elena Martínez

In 1917 Rafael met the renowned African American bandleader James Reese Europe. In 1910 Europe founded an orchestra of over 100 musicians, and the following year it was the first Black group to play Carnegie Hall. As the U.S. was about to enter World War I, Lt. Europe was asked to organize an African American military band and fighting unit for the segregated army. To complete the band he wanted horn players who could read music so he traveled to the island and recruited 18 Afro Puerto Ricans from the island’s municipal bands. The fact that Puerto Ricans had recently received U.S. citizenship facilitated the recruitment of Puerto Ricans into the military and thus into the orchestra. Rafael Hernández was recruited into Europe’s 369th Regiment band as a trombone player and became a sergeant during World War I. Other musicians who were recruited from Puerto Rico included Rafael Duchesne Mondríguez from Fajardo, who played first clarinet, and Rafael Hernández's brother Jesús. Hernández and the others went to North Carolina for basic training. Europe’s 369th Regiment, which became known as the “Hellfighters,” was considered to have introduced jazz to the European continent. They gained the nickname during their tour of duty for their bravery on the battlefield. After the war the 369th U.S. Infantry band began recording for the Pathé label and toured briefly until James Reese Europe was tragically murdered after a concert by his drummer. The group disbanded and the musicians had to strike out on their own.

Most mainstream histories on the topic of the Harlem Hellfighters tend to downplay or barely mention the role of the Puerto Rican musicians that were involved in the 369th Regiment during World War I. The ten-part jazz history made by Ken Burns is no exception. In fact in his documentary there is no mention at all that James Reese Europe recruited experienced musicians from the island. This may reflect a larger societal problem in that most issues in that U.S. are dealt with through the perspective of race in Black and White only, without taking into account the complexity which defies easy explanations.

Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies
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