Cook, Charles “Doc” 1891
Charles “Doc” Cook 1891–1958
Charles “Doc” Cook was a 1920s Chicago bandleader who worked on the edge of the early jazz tradition. When modern listeners think of jazz in the 1920s, it is the city of New Orleans and its high-energy improvising musicians who come to mind. Jazz, the usual narrative goes, was born in New Orleans as African-American musicians expanded on grassroots musical forms like the funeral procession band, creating a new genre that featured powerful soloists such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong and displacing the polished music of non-jazz dance bands. Doc Cook and his 14 Doctors of Syncopation, also known as Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra, were one of those dance bands. But the Great Depression eventually put an end to their career.
Yet musicians draw lines less strictly than historians do, and an examination of the membership rolls of Cook’s orchestras reveals several important jazz players who had moved north from New Orleans. Cook incubated other musical talents as well. Recordings show Cook’s group as an ensemble that could play many different kinds of music, jazz included. Cook was a well-known figure in Chicago in his day, and advertisements for his music were plastered all over the city. Almost forgotten after his death, Cook awaited rediscovery as jazz observers realized how important the dance orchestras of the 1920s had been and noted their influence on the swing style of the 1930s.
Charles L. Cooke (he dropped the final “e” from his last name early in his career) was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 3, 1891. By the time he was eight, he was writing his own musical compositions, and he put together an eight-piece band in Louisville at age 15. His parents moved to Detroit, Michigan, when he was 18, and soon he had signed on with Fred Stone’s Orchestra, one of the city’s leading African-American dance ensembles. Little is known of Cook’s early musical training, but he had talent enough to move on to another top Detroit group, the Ben Shook band. Cook played the piano and also wrote musical arrangements, a sign that he probably had some classical training.
Traces of Cook’s career in Detroit are sketchy, but he may have led a band of his own under the name of Cookie and His Ginger Snaps, a name that Cook would revive when he moved to Chicago. His real breakthrough came when he received the title of manager in the Shook ensemble, which toured far beyond Detroit and had even won a contract to furnish ongoing musical entertainment at Chicago’s Riverview Park. Although Detroit in its pre-auto industry days was a much smaller city than Chicago, this out-of-town musician contingent flourished, and by the early 1920s Cook was leading a Chicago band of his own.
Once in Chicago, Cook took steps to enhance his musical training, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Chicago College of Music (not the American Conservatory, as some of his contemporaries remembered it). He went on to acquire a doctorate from the same institution in 1926, studying under William Abbott and composing a classical work called Pro Arte in fulfillment of his dissertation requirements. Cook was one of
At a Glance…
Born Charles L. Cooke on September 3, 1891, in Louisville, KY; died on December 25, 1958, in Wurtsboro, NY. Education; Chicago College of Music, PhD, music, 1926.
Career: Composer and arranger, Detroit, c. 1909-21; Dreamland Ballroom, bandleader and musical director, Chicago, 1922-27; OKeh, Columbia, and Gennett labels, recording artist, 1924-28; White City Ballroom and other Chicago venues, musician, 1927-30; Radio City Music Hall, staff arranger, 1930s and early 1940s; RKO theater, staff arranger, 1930s and early 1940s; musical arranger for dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, 1930s and early 1940s.
the first African Americans to receive a doctoral degree in music, and he would henceforth bill himself as Doc Cook. His band, for a time after he earned his degree, was known as the 14 Doctors of Syncopation. Though the “Doc” designation was a common one in the world of early jazz and blues, Cook was one of the few musicians who could claim it legitimately.
By that time, Cook was already a well-known figure in Chicago. From 1922 to 1927 he was musical director at the Dreamland Ballroom, an enormous dance hall on the city’s Near West Side (at the intersection of Paulina and Van Buren streets) that also featured roller skating. The Dreamland was a popular spot with young working-class white Chicagoans (the only place blacks were allowed in the hall at the time was behind the bandstand), and in contrast to the unsavory reputations held by some jazz establishments, it was billed as squeaky clean. Pictures of the time show Cook, baton in hand, in front of an orchestra seated on an elaborate arched bandstand. Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra reached a peak membership of 16 players. Cook and his musicians also performed on Chicago radio station WGN.
The Dreamland Orchestra membership is most notable among jazz historians for the number of top-flight jazz players it contained. Several New Orleans jazzmen who had made their way up the Mississippi River to Chicago signed on with Cook, including cornetist Freddie Keppard, one of the true creators of jazz. Clarinetist and alto saxophonist Jimmie Noone, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, alto saxophonist Joe Poston, tenor saxophonist Jerome Don Pasquall, cornetist George Mitchell, and drummers Zutty Singleton and Andrew Hilaire all worked for Cook at various times. Another important Cook alumnus was trombonist William Dawson, who went on to a career as director of Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Singers and who created many of the best-known modern arrangements of African-American spirituals.
Though these members of Cook’s ensembles later became better known than Cook himself, Cook and his group were brought into the studio several times in the 1920s to make recordings. Cook’s first discs were made for the Gennett label in Richmond, Indiana, and issued in 1924; subsequent releases in 1926, 1927, and 1928 (the last two under the 14 Doctors of Syncopation name) were on Columbia, and a quartet of 1926 sides were done under the Cookie’s Ginger Snaps name and released on the OKeh label. The 1926 OKeh group included a Cook composition, “Love Found You for Me,” that became a moderate hit; “Messin’ Around,” recorded at the same session and co-composed by Cook and St. Cyr, was another local success. “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man” and “High Fever,” from the 1926 Columbia sessions, showcased Cook’s band at its jazziest.
These recordings reveal a versatile band that could deliver what its audience wanted to hear: popular tunes of the day, ragtime, composed jazz pieces by the likes of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, and, on occasion, full-fledged jazz improvisation from Keppard and other players. As historian William Rowland Kenney put it in his book Chicago Jazz, Keppard and his fellow jazz veterans “heated up the orchestral arrangements” and also broke off into small combos from time to time. Cook, who composed some of his bands’ most popular pieces himself, was adept at writing arrangements that suggested the new group improvisations coming out of New Orleans even as he specified what each musician was to play.
Indeed, several of Cook’s arrangements anticipated the art of bandleader “Duke” Ellington in his ability to build a composed piece around the talents of solo improvisers. Cook’s fame spread beyond Chicago and Detroit to Kansas City, where he did arrangements for the Coon-Sanders Orchestra. Jazz musician Billy Butler recalled how busy Cook was at the height of his career in the mid-1920s: “When I joined him in Chicago,” Butler said, “he already had an office in the State-Lake Building, and was doing overtures for important theatres, and a lot of orchestrations that were published widely.” Butler also recalled Cook a skilled keyboard player, on the organ as well as the piano.
The picture of Cook in his downtown Chicago office hardly jibes with the usual images of African-American music in the 1920s, but Cook’s career had both high impact and long life. His orchestra was well known enough at one point to be featured in advertising for the Buescher musical instrument brand. Cook and the Dreamland Ballroom parted ways in 1927, but he bounced back, now using the “14 Doctors of Syncopation” label for his band, to play concerts at a Chicago city pier. Soon Cook signed on for a stint of several years at the White City Ballroom, at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue. Cook and his Doctors of Syncopation also toured across the Midwest during this period.
The Great Depression finally took the wind out of Cook’s sails around 1930. Bookings dried up, and the Doctors of Syncopation dissolved after their instruments were stolen off the bandstand after a dance marathon for which they furnished music that year. Cook headed for New York, where he found work as a staff arranger for Radio City Music Hall and for the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) theater chain. He did arranging work for the legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1930s and finally retired from music in the early 1940s. In later life he suffered a stroke and was cared for by his former bandmate Butler.
Cook died in Wurtsboro, New York, on Christmas Day of 1958. By that time he had been largely forgotten. A 1974 article quoted in the widely used textbook Jazz: A History referred to Cook and a host of other popular Chicago bandleaders of the 1920s as “little known today.” Jazz enthusiasts in the coming years, however, unearthed Cook’s unfailingly entertaining recordings; a European LP compilation of his recorded works was issued, and a Keppard tribute group called Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Jazz Band reconstructed some of the arrangements in which Cook had featured the New Orleans cornetist. By the early 2000s, Cook’s recordings could be heard on the Red Hot Jazz historical website. The full story of “Doc” Cook’s impact on the musical world of his day remains to be written.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Lonely Little Wallflower,” Gennett, 1924.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Moanful Man,” Gennett, 1924.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Scissor Grinder Joe,” Gennett, 1924.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “The Memphis Maybe Man,” Gennett, 1924.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else,” Gennett, 1924.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “So This Is Venice,” Gennett, 1924.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Brown Sugar,” Columbia, 1926.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man!,” Columbia, 1926.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “High Fever,” Columbia, 1926.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Sidewalk Blues,” Columbia, 1926.
(as Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra) “Spanish Mama,” Columbia, 1926.
(as Cookie’s Ginger Snaps) “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man,” OKeh, 1926.
(as Cookie’s Ginger Snaps) “High Fever,” OKeh, 1926.
(as Cookie’s Ginger Snaps) “Love Found You for Me,” OKeh, 1926.
(as Cookie’s Ginger Snaps) “Messin’ Around,” OKeh, 1926.
(as Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation) “Alligator Crawl,” Columbia, 1927.
(as Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation) “Brainstorm,” Columbia, 1927.
(as Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation) “Slue Foot,” Columbia, 1927.
(as Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation) “Willie the Weeper,” Columbia, 1927.
(as Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation) “Hum and Strum (Do-Do-Do, That’s What I Do),” Columbia, 1928.
(as Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation) “I Got Worry (Love Is on My Mind),” Columbia, 1928.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz, Da Capo, 1985.
Feather, Leonard G., The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Fernett, Gene, Swing Out: Great Negro Dance Bands, Pendell, 1970.
Kenney, William Howland, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History 1904-1930, Oxford, 1993.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Larkin, Colin, The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz, Virgin, 1997.
Guardian (London), May 26, 2000, p. 25.
“The Beginning: Black Music in Detroit-1850-1920,” Internet Public Library, www.ipl.org.ar/exhibit/detjazz/Beginning.html (February 9, 2004).
“Charles L. ‘Doc’ Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra,” Big Bands Database, http://nfo.net/usa/c5.html (February 9, 2004).
“Cookie’s Ginger Snaps,” “Doc Cook and His Dreamland Orchestra,” and “Doc Cook and His 14 Doctors of Syncopation,” Red Hot Jazz, www.redhotjazz.com (February 17, 2004).
“Doc Cook,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 9, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Cook, Charles “Doc” 1891." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cook-charles-doc-1891
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