Personalities | Will Marion Cook | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

(Composer, arranger, violin, 1869–1944)

Will Marion Cook was a highly educated musician, studying at Oberlin Conservatory and the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with virtuoso Joseph Joachim (he also studied briefly with Antonín Dvořák). He worked as a composer with Bob Cole’s All-Star Stock Company, a seminal force in early African-American musical comedy production. (The group later employed the Johnson brothers – J. Rosamund and James Weldon – to write pioneering all-black musicals such as The Shoo-fly Regiment, 1907 and The Red Moon, 1909.) At this time, African-American musical comedy was performed on and off Broadway, but only fragments or sections were recorded, despite the popularity of many of the shows.

Cook dreamed of working with the stellar African-American vaudeville team of (Bert) Williams and (George W.) Walker. In 1898, together with poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, he wrote Clorindy, or The Origin Of The Cakewalk. This innovative show starred popular singer-composer Ernest Hogan, as well as a cast of 40 singers and dancers. Very successful, Clorindy set a new course for black musicals. This success assured Cook of his dream – he worked for Williams and Walker for more than a decade, while continuing to collaborate with Dunbar on In Dahomey (1903), In Abyssina (1906) and In Bandanna Land (1908). In 1918, Cook formed the New York (or American) Syncopated Orchestra, with settings for the new jazz music. In the 1920s he led Clef Club ensembles and worked with many important musicians, including pioneer big-band leader Fletcher Henderson and singer-actor Paul Robeson. Cook’s musical Swing Along (1929) displayed his earlier work.

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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