Heather Buchanan is on a crusade to restore a lost part of the history of World War I – the role a group of African-American jazz musicians played in winning that war.
It’s called The Remembrance Project a digital, print and musical centennial tribute to Lt. James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters Regimental Band of WWI, the most decorated American soldiers of the war. None of them were ever captured and they never lost a foot of ground to the enemy. They turned the tide of the war by winning the decisive battle at Sechault, France, in late September 1918 and would later be awarded France’s highest honor, the Croix de Guerre, according to the project.
The regiment was unique because its acclaimed regimental band toured France as ambassadors of a new musical form, jazz.
Buchanan spent years researching the Hellfighters, their band, and their leader, Europe. Europe wrote some of the best known wartime jazz and had famous peers in the trenches and on stage such as Noble Sissle of Broadway’s Shuffle Along and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
“The entry of the 369th into the war was a game-changer,” Buchanan says “but it has taken nearly 100 years for its soldiers to be recognized for their valor.” A famous example is Sgt. Henry Johnson, who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Obama in 2015.
Buchanan, its executive producer and a past recipient of the Detroit Proclamation, has been awarded the 2017 Paul Charosh Fellowship from the Society for American Music for her work. She’ll be recognized at the Society’s conference in March at the Chateau Champlain.
2017 marks the centennial of when the 369th regimental band was first imagined, and 2018 will be the 100th anniversary of when the band was in France “fighting the good fight” and ushering in the Jazz Age in that country.
“There are so many amazing angles to this true story. This was the dawn of the Jazz Age,” Buchanan says. “Here you have black American jazz musicians fighting for the French army, because they were barred from fighting alongside their fellow white Americans. Their regiment, the 369th, serves with distinction and is instrumental to the Allied victory. All the while, the band is introducing France to jazz, which changes that country forever.
“Despite all these achievements, however, the regiment is stripped of everything and denied all honors due returning heroes. One bright spot is the band embarking on a successful U.S. postwar tour, but then their bandleader is killed. And that’s only part of the story,” she says.
A labor of love, Buchanan recruited Detroit-area artists, musicians and scholars to tell the story, since Detroit played a big part in the rise of jazz at that time.
Tracy Kash, a Detroit Music Awards-winning vocalist, instrumentalist and composer, is writing and arranging songs that make this early music accessible to contemporary audiences. She was trained at the Boston Conservatory and performed on the New York scene for many years.
Director Arthur Ray is developing staged readings from Buchanan’s WWI novel series, Remembrance. He is an acclaimed musician who has worked with many Detroit artists.
Buchanan is no stranger to drawing attention to Detroit. For the past 20 years she has been raising awareness of its arts and culture. She spearheaded the Writers@The Carr residency at Harmonie Park’s Carr Center, the Idlewild Writers Conference and the upcoming 2017 Passage to Paradise program about Paradise Valley, which will spotlight a novel by Detroit writer and actor Thomas Galasso (Hoffa).
She has also written several books about the city, including memoirs of Sphinx Organization founder Aaron Dworkin.
Buchanan has also gone global. Her programs have been established as far as the Philippines and Rwanda. Her press supplies poetry books to several African libraries and created the first-ever arts residency at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, a 19th century community founded by free people of color.
Founder of the Aquarius Press, she has stoked the creative flames for the past 10 years by publishing many of the nation’s top poets and writers of color via her Willow Books division.
Buchanan’s fellowship will enable her to contribute new scholarship on this topic. A companion novel in a four-book series, Remembrance: Arrival, has just been released. A digital theatre production will begin filming in 2017 and a portion of proceeds will go towards the World War I Memorial opening in the U.S. Capital in 2018.
Remembrance, Book One: Arrival is available at Amazon.com.