Will Marion Cook


Born: January 27, 1869; Washington DC   Died: July 19, 1944; New York, NY [Harlem]  
Will Marion Cook is one of American classical music's great lost opportunities; through his long life he worked valiantly to promote his fellow African-American musicians and their music in mainstream American culture, and started out as a promising concert violinist; he could have been one of the first figures to take Antonin Dvorák's advice and compose in a truly American style. But discrimination eventually forced him to take refuge in popular Read more music, where he ultimately performed with or coached such figures as Eubie Blake, Sidney Bechet, Paul Robeson, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington.

At age 15 Cook was sent to study music at Ohio's fully integrated Oberlin College Conservatory, later traveling to Germany to study violin with Joseph Joachim. He returned to America in 1889, and the following year took charge of an orchestra subsidized by Frederick Douglass. In New York he also studied at the new National Conservatory, including with Dvorák, its director.

Cook tried to make a go of it as a concert violinist, but he soon found greater acceptance working in musical theater. In 1898 he collaborated with writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar on Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk, which would become the first truly African-American show to receive a long, enthusiastic response on Broadway. In the following decade Cook would be largely responsible for launching the golden age of black musical theater, composing and conducting the Bert Williams/George Walker productions of such shows as In Dahomey, The Southerners, and The Sons of Ham. These were far removed from the old minstrel show style, largely free of stereotypes. Even so, Cook's strong rhythms and folk-inspired melodies (which could have been put to excellent use in a "New World"-style symphony) lent themselves well to black popular song, making his works more akin to popular revues than to operetta.

Although Cook took his culture seriously, he did wind up writing music for shows with such titles as Darkeydom and Jes' Lak White Fo'ks, and his slender discography from before World War I includes such songs as "Darktown Is Out Tonight" and "Who Dat Say Chicken," as well as the more enduring "Swing Along." Aside from some absences, including a stint from 1918 touring America and England with his "Southern Syncopated Orchestra," Cook spent the rest of his life in New York, teaching, organizing choral groups, lecturing on African-American music, promoting "all Negro music" concerts, and coaching young up-and-coming jazz figures. Read less

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