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Biography Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)

Image: Portrait of Will Marion Cook
[Will Marion Cook]. (n.d.). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

One of the most important figures in pre-jazz African-American music, Will Marion Cook is also one of its better known personalities. As a composer, conductor, performer, teacher, and producer, he had his hand in nearly every aspect of the black music of his time and worked with nearly every other important musician in his fields. Uncompromising and difficult to work with, he still commanded respect from his peers for his abilities and accomplishments.

Cook was born to middle class parents in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1869. His father, John Hartwell Cook, was in the first class of students at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. He went on to become the school's first dean. Following his father's sudden death in 1879, Cook and his mother lived in several cities around the country, including Denver and Kansas City.

In 1881 he was sent to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to live with his grandfather where he heard black folk music for the first time. However, Cook's early career remained focused on classical music and violin performance, which he began at age 13. When he was 15, Cook studied violin at Oberlin College.

Frederick Douglass helped organize a fundraiser to send Cook to study in Europe. As a result, Cook studied from 1887-89 at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and associate of Brahms. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1890, however, his classical career went nowhere. Since he was unable to find employment at any musical institution, he began to teach music privately; among his students was Clarence Cameron White, who later became famous as a violinist and composer.

Cook's earliest composition was Scenes from the Opera of Uncle Tom's Cabin--intended for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, but which was not performed. In 1894-95 he continued his studies at the National Conservatory for Music where Antonin Dvořák and John White were teaching.

Cook turned to popular music as his classical career was not successful. He began writing songs and formed the Gotham-Attucks Publishing Company with R. C. McPherson. His first big success was the musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898). The lyricist and librettist for this show was Paul Lawrence Dunbar who wrote (perhaps at Cook's insistence) in a dialect style. Cook managed to get Clorindy performed as an extended afterpiece at the Casino Roof Garden on Broadway. When the show began there were only 50 people in the rooftop audience but people coming out of the main show downstairs heard magnificent choral singing coming from the roof and rushed up to see who was performing. By the end of the opening chorus, the house was packed and the performers were given a 10-minute ovation.

Cook remained an important figure in the new century. He wrote and published many songs, was prominent as a conductor, and was the musical director for Bert Williams and George Walker's string of groundbreaking musicals, including The Sons of Ham (1900), In Dahomey (1903) (the first musical composed and performed entirely by African-Americans in a major Broadway theater), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandana Land (1908). Cook also wrote music for The Southerners (1904), the first Broadway show to feature a racially integrated cast. He worked with Ernest Hogan on a musical Jes Lak White Fo'ks (1899) and with Hogan's Memphis Students performance troupe, with whom he toured Europe in 1905.

Many of Cook's musical theater pieces were scored for chorus. Some were set in four-part harmony (Swing Along! and Julep Song) and some featured solo verses and unison chorus (My Lady Nicotine and Whoop 'er Up). In 1912, G. Schirmer issued Three Negro Songs: For Chorus of Men's Voices with Piano Accompaniment. The collection included Rain Song, Exhortation, and Swing Along!, which were exceedingly popular with community choirs during the first part of the twentieth century. Performances of these and other Cook choruses, however, declined as the thematic material and use of black dialect became incompatible with changing cultural mores.

Outside the theater world, Cook also gained a solid reputation as a choral and orchestral conductor. In 1910 he became a contributing member of New York's Clef Club, an organization of African-American musicians led by James Reese Europe. He served as chorus master and as assistant conductor of the Clef Club Orchestra. A historic concert on May 2, 1912, at Carnegie Hall featured his 150-voice chorus in a performance of Swing Along! In 1918, he founded the New York Syncopated Orchestra, later renamed the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. The instrumental ensemble, which included a twenty-voice choir, performed on tour throughout the United States and Europe until 1920. Cook died of cancer in New York in 1944.

As mentor and teacher, Cook influenced a generation of young African-American musicians, including jazz composer and performer Duke Ellington and singer Eva Jessye, the first black woman to become a professional choral conductor. Ellington, another Washington D.C. native, studied with Cook. Ellington acknowledged his debt to Cook noting that when he needed direction for developing a theme and asked Cook for advice, Cook told him, "You know you should go to the conservatory, but since you won't I'll tell you. First you find the logical way, and when you find it, avoid it, and let your inner self break through and guide you. Don't try to be anybody but yourself." Happily, Ellington followed this advice.

Cook also followed his own advice. Thomas Riis, in his study of early black musical theater, singles out Cook's remarkable harmonic skill and compositional sophistication. When the pursuit of his classical career was stymied, Cook brought his exceptional talent to bear on popular music, perhaps paving the way for the marriage of popular spirit and classical complexity which became jazz. Either as precursor to jazz or in its own right, Cook's music deserves close attention.