Will Marion Cook
Copyright (C) Thomas L. Morgan 1992.
Will Marion Cook was a proud man. He was also an aggressive and angry man who never received the recognition he felt was his due. According to Eubie Blake, "Cook was a great musician, but he tried to push things down people's throats. I think he got that in Europe. He was trying to ape Richard Wagner."
Cook was born in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1869. When he was 13, he studied violin at Oberlin Conservatory where his mother had graduated in 1865. After two years at Oberlin, he left to attend the University of Berlin. While in Germany, he studied under Professor Joseph Joachim, one of the premier violinists of the era.
On his return to the United States, he studied for a brief time with Antonin Dvorak at the National Conservatory of Music, and in 1889, he made his musical debut. The following year he became the director of a chamber orchestra, and in 1893, he wrote his first composition.
His first attempt at theater was a series of skits entitled Clorindy or The Origin of the Cakewalk. All the songs and the libretto were written in one ten-hour session between Cook and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Dunbar was a well-known African-American dialect poet, and when Cook's mother heard the results of their collaboration, she cried, saying, "I've sent you all over the world to study and become a great musician and you return such a nigger!"
According to Isadore Witmark, a major song publisher at the time, Cook approached him about a month before the production and told him that if he would help get Clorindy produced, Cook would give him publication rights to the music as well as all the royalties. Witmark agreed to help, but said that Cook could keep the royalties for himself. Cook remembered the meeting a bit differently: Witmark told him he was crazy to believe any Broadway audience would listen to Negroes sing.
During this time a new venue for entertainment emerged in New York. Previously, summer shows were not held in the city because before air conditioning, theaters were simply too hot. The innovation was to place stages on theater roofs where the air was cooler.
The Casino Theater Roof Garden was the first such open-air establishment, and for a month, Cook tried unsuccessfully to gain an audition there. In desperation, he lied to his cast, telling them that an audition was to take place the next Monday morning. When they arrived, the conductor of the roof garden's orchestra, an Englishman named John Braham, lent Cook last-minute assistance by insisting that the theater manager give Cook's troupe a chance.
The audition was successful, and they were scheduled to perform that evening. Rain canceled the first show, so they rescheduled for the following Monday. Ernest Hogan, the troupe's lead actor and a stage veteran as well as a songwriter, used the time to tighten up the performance. In the process, he dropped Dunbar's libretto, which he felt could not be heard on an uncovered roof garden at 11:00 pm.
Clorindy or The Origin of the Cakewalk finally opened on July 5, 1898. With a cast of twenty-six African-Americans headed by Hogan, the operetta was a mixture of comedy, songs, and dances including the cakewalk. In some of the numbers, the performers sang and danced simultaneously, the first time this had ever been done on the stage .
The hour-long show was a triumph. Hogan's song "Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd" drew ten encores, and Cook and the cast were elated. Of the evening, Cook said: I was so delirious that I drank a glass of water, thought it wine and got glorious drunk. Negroes at last were on Broadway, and there to stay....We were artists and we were going a long way. We had the world on a string tied to a runnin' red-geared wagon on a down-hill pull. Nothing could stop us, and nothing did for a decade.
James Weldon Johnson said that Cook was "the first competent composer to take what was then known as rag-time and work it out in a musicianly way. His choruses and finales in Clorindy, complete novelties as they were, sung by a lusty chorus, were simply breath-taking." Even though ragtime music was not normally considered respectable because of its association with the lower class and the underworld, W. C. Handy told of hearing the hit song from Clorindy, Darktown is Out Tonight, whistled in barbershops and on street corners everywhere he went.
A story related by Duke Ellington gives more insight into Cook's character. When a reviewer of his 1895 concert in Carnegie Hall wrote that Cook was "the world's greatest Negro violinist," Cook went to see him, violin in hand:
"Thank you very much for the favorable review," he said. "You wrote that I was the world's greatest Negro violinist." "Yes, Mr. Cook," the man said, "and I meant it. You are definitely the world's greatest Negro violinist." With that, Dad [Ellington's nickname for him] Cook took out his violin and smashed it across the reviewer's desk. "I am not the world's greatest Negro violinist," he exclaimed. "I am the greatest violinist in the world!" He turned and walked away from his splintered instrument, and it has been said that he never picked up a violin again in his life.
According to Tom Fletcher, however, Cook did play the violin at least one more time. The event took place at James Reese Europe's persuasion, when the Clef Club Orchestra played Carnegie Hall in 1912. Cook agreed to go on stage provided that he would not be introduced or asked to take a bow. Some members of the audience recognized him, and there was a tremendous response at the conclusion of his performance. The applause and cries for "speech" lasted so long that when the overcome Cook finally did try to speak, all he could do was bow.
At the turn of the century, Cook was composing popular songs, some of which were published under the name Will Marion. Later he was composer-in-chief and musical director for Williams and Walker's Broadway shows.
Cook's wife, Abbie Mitchell, was a lead singer with The Memphis Students. Her partner Tom Fletcher described her as "a singing sensation" on the troupe's European tour. She was also the female lead in Cole and Johnson's 1908 production Red Moon and performed with her husband's orchestra when they toured Europe in 1918. After retiring from the stage, she opened a musical and dramatic studio in New York.
Among Will Marion Cook's many frustrations was the audience's apparent desire to hear only light-hearted music from African-American composers. Mary White Ovington wrote, "I am told that Mr. Cook declares that the next score he writes shall begin with ten minutes of serious music. If the audience doesn't like it, they can come in late, but for ten minutes he will do something worthy of his genius."
At the age of 49, Cook led a band called The Southern Syncopaters, also known as The New York Syncopated Orchestra, which toured Europe and gave a command performance before England's George V. It was during this tour that band member Sidney Bechet discovered the soprano sax and began to develop his technique on an instrument which was to bring him jazz greatness. After Cook returned from Europe, he led one of the Clef Club orchestras which included Paul Robeson as a vocalist.
In his autobiography, Duke Ellington, who first met Cook in the early twenties, wrote:
Several times after I had played some tune I had written but not really completed, I would say, "Now Dad, what is the logical way to develop this theme? What direction should I take?" "You know you should go to the conservatory," he would answer, "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."
If Cook's accomplishments were hampered by his irascible nature, at least he followed his own advice. Will Marion Cook died in New York on July 19, 1944.