Cook, Will Marion 1869–1944
Will Marion Cook 1869–1944
As a composer of musical theater, Will Marion Cook did much to lay the groundwork for the black popular music industry in the United States. As a conductor, he organized ensembles of such precision and virtuosity that American critics and European observers were astounded. Cook himself, according to the Washington Post, correctly forecast the long-lasting effects of his 1898 musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk, the first show written and performed by blacks to appear on New York’s Broadway stages: “Negroes were at last on Broadway,” he wrote, “and there to stay. Gone was the uff-dah of the minstrel! Gone the Massa Linkum stuff. We were artists and we were going a long, long way.”
Will Mercer Cook was born in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1869, to parents who had both grown up as free blacks and who were both graduates of Oberlin College in Ohio. (The name Will Marion Cook evolved from the pseudonym of Will Marion that Cook used early in his songwriting career.) At the time of Cook’s birth, his father was a clerk in the U.S. government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, and he later became the first African American to practice law in Washington.
Cook showed skill on the violin at an early age, and his parents sent him to the Oberlin Conservatory, which at the time maintained both high school and college-level programs. Cook remained at Oberlin for several years but did not graduate from either program. Nevertheless, one of his professors, Prof. Amos Doolittle, suggested that he go to Germany for further study.
Cook’s father had died by that time, but his family scraped together the funds to send Cook to Europe by staging a benefit concert promoted and attended by the onetime abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass, a Cook family friend. In Berlin, Germany, Cook studied with Joseph Joachim, one of the most famous violinists of the nineteenth century. Back in New York, Cook met H. T. Burleigh, a vocalist widely known for his interpretations of African-American spirituals. Burleigh had convinced the visiting Czech composer Antonín Dvorák that the future of American music lay with the cultivation of African-American musical materials, and he sent Cook to Dvorák with a letter of introduction. Cook probably studied under Dvorák at the National Conservatory of Music in New
At a Glance…
Born Will Mercer Cook on January 27, 1869, in Washington, DC; died on July 19, 1944, in New York, NY; married Abbie Mitchell, 1899 (divorced 1906); children: Mercer. Education: Studied at Oberlin Conservatory, Oberlin, OH, at both high school and college level; studied in Germany with classical violinist Josef Joachim; studied or performed under Czech composer Antonín Dvorák, early 1890s.
Career: Composer and conductor, 1895-1944; gave classical concert at Carnegie Hall, 1895; Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, producer and composer, 1898; toured Europe with In Dahomey, 1903; toured Europe with Memphis Students ensemble, 1905; toured Europe with Clef Club orchestra, 1912; Southern Syncopated Orchestra (later American Syncopated Orchestra), founder and conductor, 1918-22; New York City, music teacher and conductor, 1920s-1930s; music instructor to “Duke” Ellington, late 1920s.
York and certainly performed under his direction in 1894.
Meanwhile Cook had launched his career, making appearances in Chicago and conducting a Washington orchestra sponsored by Douglass. But at this time, when treatment of African Americans had reached the low point of the post-Civil War era, he consistently encountered discrimination. In 1895 Cook gave a violin concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. According to a retrospective article in the Washington Post, the next day a newspaper critic wrote that Cook was “the world’s greatest Negro violinist.” Cook went to the critic’s office, declared that “I am not the world’s greatest Negro violinist, I am the greatest violinist in the world,” smashed his violin on the critic’s desk, and then and there gave up his career on the instrument.
Living in New York, Cook got to know various writers and black stage performers of the day, and by the late 1890s he had decided that popular music would present fewer barriers to his advancement than would classical music. One of the first fruits of his decision was Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk, written in collaboration with the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was an auspicious beginning to Cook’s popular career. Cook himself described the show’s premiere at the Casino Roof Garden theater in the book titled Black Conductors: “When the last note was sounded, the audience stood and cheered for at least ten minutes.” African-American critic James Weldon Johnson, quoted in the same book, saw historic significance in the occasion: “‘Clorindy’ was the talk of New York,” he wrote. “It was the first demonstration of the possibilities of syncopated Negro music.”
In 1899 Cook married Abbie Mitchell, a dancer from the Clorindy production (the two were divorced in 1906). The beginning of Cook’s theatrical career coincided with the rise of the black vaudeville team of Bert Williams and George Walker, two immensely talented comedians and singers who performed in the blackface makeup of the minstrel show. In 1899 Cook became music director for Williams and Walker, turning out instrumental and choral numbers for a series of hit shows that served as vehicles for their performances.
These productions in the early 1900s included The Sons of Ham, In Dahomey, In Abyssinia, and In Bandanna Land. By modern standards these shows, which sometimes featured fanciful images of tribal Africans doing the latest cakewalk dance steps, seem suffused with the racist imagery and terminology of the day. But comparing them with white minstrel shows sheds light on how thoroughly Cook and his collaborators humanized black characters and smoothed down the nastiest edges of white stereotypes. And Cook’s tunes, such as “Who Dat Say Chicken?” and “Dark-town Is Out Tonight,” set all New York’s feet to tapping, in the decade just before jazz took the country by storm.
Cook was a key figure in so-called “Black Bohemia,” New York’s African-American creative community, working with and cultivating friendships with a variety of writers and performers. He traveled to Europe twice in the early 1900s. First he toured with a production of In Dahomey, and then as the conductor of an ensemble called the Memphis Students (though none of the members were either students or from Memphis). The Memphis Students sailed for Europe in late 1905 and began to reorient the world’s musical ears to black rhythms. Black philosopher Alain Locke later recalled in Black Conductors, “Real jazz was in the making and Negro music had burst the Nordic strait-jacket unwise imitation had imposed.”
In 1912 Cook’s composition Swing Along was featured at the 1912 Carnegie Hall concert given by the Clef Club Orchestra, and was another milestone in the integration of African Americans into the institutions of American cultural life. Cook remained active as a conductor who did much to train black instrumental performers, vocalists, and choirs, and in 1918 he organized an ensemble of his own, the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. That group won widespread praise in both the United States and Europe, to which Cook traveled for the third time in 1919. One fan was the Swiss classical conductor Ernest Ansermet, who, according to the Washington Post, called Cook his favorite conductor and wrote that the group’s music represented “perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.”
Cook returned to New York in 1922 and became eminent on the black music scene in the 1920s and 1930s. He gave private lessons to musicians who gained renown in both the popular and classical fields, including stride pianist and composer James P. Johnson, choral conductor Eva Jessye. His most famous student may have been the bandleader and composer “Duke” Ellington, who studied with Cook in the 1920s, just as Ellington’s classical-influenced style was taking shape. In an interview quoted in Black Conductors, Ellington called Cook “His Majesty the King of Consonance.”
Cook died in New York City on July 19, 1944. His importance in African-American musical history was underestimated for a time because his musicals, with their questionable racial imagery, were rarely performed. By the end of the twentieth century, however, scholars had begun to investigate and appreciate his legacy.
Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (stage musical), 1898.
The Cannibal King (stage musical), 1901.
The Southerners (stage musical), 1904.
Composed instrumental and choral numbers for comic musicals featuring Bert Williams and George Walker, including The Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1902), In Abyssinia (1905), and In Bandanna Land (1907).
Handy, D. Antoinette, Black Conductors, Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Riis, Thomas, Just Before Jazz, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1997.
Back Stage, July 16, 1999, p. 64.
Washington Post, July 18, 1999, p. X8; February 18, 2000, p. N37.
—James M. Manheim
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