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369th Experience Band Ties HBCU Musicians to WWI Black History

VOICE AND VIEWPOINT — In 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles ended WWI, two years after the U.S. entered the fight with France and Great Britain against Germany, 44 Black colleges existed. Today, 100 years later, there are 101 public and private HBCUs, and they and their students are playing an important part in reclaiming the role African American soldiers and artists played in that conflict.

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By Leonard E. Colvin

In 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles ended WWI, two years after the U.S. entered the fight with France and Great Britain against Germany, 44 Black colleges existed.

Today, 100 years later, there are 101 public and private HBCUs, and they and their students are playing an important part in reclaiming the role African American soldiers and artists played in that conflict.

Thanks to the United States World War I Centennial Commission, Coca Cola and the network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a band of 42 accomplished musicians from HBCUs are traveling around the country playing the sounds of the 369th Infantry Regimental Band that made its mark in history during WWI and WWII.

The old wartime regimental band was reincarnated four years ago in the form of the 369th Experience. Most of the new band’s 42 members are current students or pending graduates of the HBCUs.

Its namesake, the 369th Infantry Regimental Band of WWI and WWII, used musical instruments and its artists with a flair for Jazz, originated by African Americans, to establish its legacy, and introduce the art form to the Europeans.

The WWI band was formed to accompany the 369th Infantry Regiment, a group of Black fighting troops. Its assignment was to boost the morale of the Black troops comprising the 369th Infantry Regiment, formerly known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment and commonly referred to as the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Black soldiers in the field fought valiantly with their grit and guns to help the allies win WWI and show that Black men could fight for freedom.

The accompanying band was led by and composed of established musical professionals. In the process of performing their assignment, they also exported Jazz music,crafted by African Americans to the allied nations.

One of the band’s leaders, James Reese Europe was a respected artist in Harlem music circles before he was assigned to the military band. He went on to direct the regimental band to great acclaim.

In February and March 1918, James Reese Europe and his military band traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for British, French and American military audiences as well as French civilians. Europe’s “Hellfighters” also made their first recordings in France for the Pathé brothers.

According to the key organizers of the current project involving HBCU students, The 369th Experience is designed to introduce people of all cultures, especially the band members, to the band’s legacy and the role it and the fighting soldiers of the 369th played in WWI.

Also, a goal is to use the band to display the Jazz music art form to audiences domestically and abroad.

It is taking place at a time when HIP-HOP and Neo-soul are overshadowing Jazz as an art form among Black people, despite efforts since the 1970s, to repackage Jazz as a popular and “profitable” genre of music to the masses.

“We chose HBCU band students because we knew we would get the best students in terms of music and marching formation!” said Stephany B. O’Neal, publicity director for the outfit.  “We had to use HBCUs to even come close to representing the Harlem Hellfighters and James Reese Europe.

“This is a totally historic event,” she continued. “Bringing the Harlem Hellfighters full circle.  They won all kinds of awards from the French and totally changed the music industry in Europe.

“Like the Black soldiers who fought on the battlefield, after the war, the band suffered many slights, despite the respect the French soldiers and later the governments bestowed upon them,” O’Neal said.

She said after the war, in Paris, France, the band was not allowed to join in the victory parade with the Americans when they marched down the Champs Elysees.

To right that wrong, plans are in the works for the 369th Experience Band to travel to Versailles, France at the upcoming International observance of the Centennial of the signing of the Treaty which ended WWI.

During the 2019 Memorial Day Weekend, in conjunction with New York’s annual Fleet Week Observance, the band performed at Rockefeller Center, Marcus Garvey Park, the Liberty Park, and in New Jersey at Harlem One Stop, a historical site.

The effort to recreate the 369th Infantry Regimental Band was launched in 2013.

After the plea was made before the House Appropriation Committee, it took several years before funding for the project was first submitted.

The U.S. Army School of Music, and their PR Personnel, Noble Sissle, Jr., son of one of the original band members, and O’Neal, even before the funding was secured, hammered together the framework andfoundation of the band’s operation.

They developed the audition criteria, auditioned the students online, hired a band leader who worked at Ohio State and once all the students were selected, began rehearsing.

“We could not get all the students in one place to rehearse and engage them,” said O’Neal, “so we did it online and in sections and we had some problems. But Coke funded a better online conferencing system, so we managed to do a lot of work even before the band members and directors met each other in person.”

Although there were 65 members of the original 365th Infantry Regimental Band, currently there are 42 members from HBCUs and 1 historically white school.

Prairie View, Florida A&M and Southern University, all southern HBCUs, have the most representatives on the band.

Eventually, the band’s membership will be expanded to 65, O’Neal said. She said that recruiting for future membership is ongoing. She said HBCU veteran band members alert and recruit band members from their respective schools to apply to be a member.

People who are interested should go to the 369th website to apply for an audition, O’Neal said.

This article originally appeared in the Voice and Viewpoint

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Activism

Call to Protect Geoffrey’s Inner Circle from Threatened High-Rise Development

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by reso-lution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and cul-ture of Oakland.

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By Ken Epstein

Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a downtown Oakland Cultural Center that has featured live jazz and served music lovers and the Black community for decades, is now under threat from a proposed real estate development that could undermine the stability and future of the facility.

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by resolution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and culture of Oakland.

Now, the Oakland Planning Commission is considering a high-rise building proposed by out-of-town developers next to Geoffrey’s, which would jeopardize both the survival of the venue and the Black business district as a whole.

In addition to running a business that has been a crucial institution in the local community and the regional arts scene, Geoffrey Pete, founder, has utilized his business to offer meals for thousands of unsheltered individuals and hosted countless community events.

The following petition is being circulated in defense of Geoffrey’s and the Black Arts district (To add your name to the petition, email info@geoffreyslive.com):

“The African-American community in Oakland has been seriously damaged by developers and public offcials who are willing and sometimes eager to see African Americans disappear from the city. Black people comprised 47% of the population in 1980; now they make up only 20% of said population. In response to this crisis the 14th Street Corridor from Oak to the 880 Frontage Road was established as the Black Arts Movement and Business District by the City Council on Jan. 7, 2016, in Resolution 85958.

Tidewater, an out-of-town developer, is proposing to build a high-rise building at 1431 Franklin, which will damage the Black business district and the businesses in the area including the iconic business of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle at 410 – 14th St.

We demand that the Planning Commission and the City Council reject this predatory building proposal and proceed with plans to fund and enhance the Black Business District.”

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Arts and Culture

IN MEMORIAM: Autris Paige

Paige performed regularly at Four Seasons’ Yachats Music Festival in Oregon from 1983-2017, with artists from around the world. Puerto Ricans Ilya and Raphael LeBron, soprano and baritone, remember him: “He leaves us with a warm memory of the simplicity that made him great: as a human being, as a friend and as a masterful artist!” Baritone Anthony Turner of New York says: “Autris was the embodiment of class and elegance. He delivered every song with a warm silken tone and economy of gestures. Autris gave of himself, his truth, his joy and love.”  Pianists Dennis Helmrich and Gerald Hecht often collaborated with Mr. Paige said: “Autris Paige was among the most intuitively refined musicians we have encountered: a pure pleasure and a cherished memory.” Pianist Jeongeun Yom, pianist, responds,”Autris will be remembered for his kindness, cheerfulness, and above all for his voice, with which he touched  the listeners’ heart.”

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AUTRIS T. PAIGE grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Star Bethel Church and graduated from McClymonds High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State before pursuing advanced studies in musical theatre at the University of Southern California.
AUTRIS T. PAIGE grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Star Bethel Church and graduated from McClymonds High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State before pursuing advanced studies in musical theatre at the University of Southern California.

August 17, 1938 – January 12, 2023

AUTRIS T. PAIGE was the youngest child born to Estella and Overton Paige in Sugar Land, Texas on Aug. 17, 1938.  He passed away on Jan. 12, 2023 in Oakland after a brief illness.  He was supported and comforted by his longtime companion Donna Vaughan.

Mr. Paige grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Star Bethel Church and graduated from McClymonds High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from San Francisco State before pursuing advanced studies in musical theatre at the University of Southern California.

He served in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1971, he made his debut with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, appearing in Candide at the Los Angeles Music Center and at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. He appeared with Ray Charles and the American Ballet Theatre and performed in several musical theatre productions on Broadway including Lost in the Stars; Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope; as Walter Lee in Raisin; and in Timbuktu with Eartha Kitt.

Mr. Paige has also sung with the New York City Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and with the San Francisco Opera. Other opera companies in which he performed include the Seattle Opera and the Glyndebourne Opera in England. He was featured in the PBS film and award-winning EMI recording of Porgy and Bess as well as the recording of the opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

When he returned to Oakland to “retire” he met Dr. W. Hazaiah Williams, Founder and Director of Today’s Artists Concerts (now Four Seasons Arts), who auditioned Paige and invited him to perform on his series. Mr. Paige began a new phase of his musical career.

He appeared many times under the auspices of Today’s Artists Concerts/Four Seasons Arts in New York’s Alice Tully Hall and in venues around the Bay Area in their Art of the Spiritual programs. He was featured in his own Spiritual Journey in 2009. His recently released solo CD, Spiritual Journey, based on this program, has received critical acclaim.

Paige performed regularly at Four Seasons’ Yachats Music Festival in Oregon from 1983-2017, with artists from around the world. Puerto Ricans Ilya and Raphael LeBron, soprano and baritone, remember him: “He leaves us with a warm memory of the simplicity that made him great: as a human being, as a friend and as a masterful artist!” Baritone Anthony Turner of New York says: “Autris was the embodiment of class and elegance. He delivered every song with a warm silken tone and economy of gestures. Autris gave of himself, his truth, his joy and love.”  Pianists Dennis Helmrich and Gerald Hecht often collaborated with Mr. Paige said: “Autris Paige was among the most intuitively refined musicians we have encountered: a pure pleasure and a cherished memory.” Pianist Jeongeun Yom, pianist, responds,”Autris will be remembered for his kindness, cheerfulness, and above all for his voice, with which he touched  the listeners’ heart.”

In 2011, Mr. Paige was featured in Four Seasons Arts’ annual W. Hazaiah Williams Memorial Concert with the Lucy Kinchen Chorale and later with soprano Alison Buchanan. In 2013, he performed his Spiritual Journey II in Berkeley with pianist Othello Jefferson. A second CD entitled Classics and Spirituals was released in September 2013. Pianist Jerry Donaldson of Oakland was a frequent collaborator with Mr. Paige, performing throughout the Bay Area.

A Celebration of Life for Autris Paige will take place Friday, Feb. 3 at 11:00 a.m. at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, 1399 McAllister Street, San Francisco.

A repast will follow the service.

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Activism

16th Annual MLK Day of Service on the Richmond Greenway

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

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“…Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 16th annual MLK Day of Service in Richmond honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  was held Jan. 16 with a day of service to the community and activities for families on the Richmond Greenway.

The event was hosted by Urban Tilth and the City of Richmond. Event partners were Groundwork Richmond, Rich City Rides, Moving Forward, Hope Worldwide, The Watershed Project, Contra Costa Resource Conservation District, Building Blocks for Kids, City of Richmond, Cal Cameron Institute, Friends of the Richmond Greenway; and Pogo Park.

The celebration made possible with the support of the Hellman Family Foundation, City of Richmond, and hundreds of individual donors.

The day’s schedule included volunteer projects along the Richmond Greenway and a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial and community celebration at Unity Park.

Among the community service projects were opportunities to take part in projects to transform and beautify the Richmond Greenway Trail, like tending to the Greenway Gardens, trash pickup, and planting native plant and trees.

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