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Cook, Will Marion(1869–1944) - Composer, violinist, conductor, Vows Never to Play Violin Again, Chronology

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Will Marion Cook was a uniquely gifted composer and violinist who studied with Anton Dvorak in Europe. He was also known as a bitter, temperamental man who was convinced that he would never be taken seriously as a classical musician because of his race. So he turned from classical to ragtime, composing works that drew on the popular minstrel themes of the times. At the end of the nineteenth century, he composed for leading black comic and vaudevillian Bert Williams. In 1889 Cook produced and wrote the music for Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk , the first musical comedy written, directed, and performed entirely by African American artists. He went on to compose the music for a number of popular black musicals. Cook led his Southern Syncopaters, a huge ragtime and concert ensemble, and composed “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Mammy” in the 1910s. As ragtime music fell out of favor, Cook was left behind, but he became an influence on Duke Ellington’s early work as a composer.

Cook was born in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 1869. He was christened Will Mercer, in honor of a close family friend, John Mercer Langston. His father, John Hartwell Cook, graduated from Howard University Law School in 1871 and became one of the first black lawyers to practice in Washington. He served as chief clerk of the Freedmen’s Bureau from 1867 until 1872 and as professor and dean of the Howard University Law School from 1876 until 1878. Will studied violin at age 13 at Oberlin Conservatory where his mother had graduated four years earlier. After two years at Oberlin, he traveled to Europe to attend the University of Berlin. While in Germany, he was a student of Joseph Joachim, one of the premier violinists of the era. According to fellow African American composer Eubie Blake as quoted in an article located at Jass.com, “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.” On his return to the United States, he studied for a brief time with Antonin Dvorak at the National Conservatory of Music. He made his musical debut in 1889 and became the director of a chamber orchestra the following year. He wrote his first composition in 1893.

Vows Never to Play Violin Again

According to Jass.com, Cook stopped playing the violin after an 1895 Carnegie Hall concert about which a reviewer wrote that he was “the world’s greatest Negro violinist.” Cook went to the writer’s office, said “I am not the world’s greatest Negro violinist, I am the greatest violinist in the world,” smashed his violin on the desk and swore never to perform again.

But Cook did play the violin at least one more time, when the Clef Club Orchestra played Carnegie Hall in 1912. Cook agreed to go on stage and play with the group, given that he would not be introduced or asked to take a bow. Some members of the audience recognized him, however, and his performance was met with tremendous applause and cries for “speech.” The applause lasted so long, and Cook was so overcome, all he could do was bow.



Born in Washington D.C. on January 27


Gives classical concert at Carnegie Hall


Composes and produces the stage musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk ,for Broadway


Marries Abbie Mitchell


Tours Europe with In Dahomey


Tours Europe with Memphis Students ensemble


Tours Europe with Clef Club orchestra


Founds Southern Syncopaters (later American Syncopated Orchestra)


Works as music teacher and conductor


Dies in New York on July 19

Writes and Produces Broadway Show

Cook was known for his hot-headedness; he became convinced that, despite his success, the world would never embrace an African American composer. So he decided to compose ragtime, the popular music of the era. Cook first attempted composing for theater with a series of skits called Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk . The show was to be written, directed, and performed by an all-African American cast, a first for Broadway. Cook and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a well-known African American poet, wrote all the songs and the libretto in one ten-hour session.

Cook approached music publisher Isadore Witmark to help produce the show in exchange for the publication rights and all the royalties. Witmark let Cook keep the royalties for himself. Cook later recalled that, when he approached Witmark, he told him he was crazy to believe any Broadway audience would pay to listen to Negroes sing.

In a time with no air conditioning, traditional theaters in New York City closed their doors during the hot summer months. The Casino Theater Roof Garden was the first open-air venue in the city. After Cook tried unsuccessfully to gain an audition there, he lied and told his cast that he had gotten them an audition. When the cast of twenty-six African Americans showed up at the theater, the conductor of the roof garden’s orchestra insisted that the theater manager give the group a chance.

Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk opened on July 5, 1898. The operetta was a mixture of comedy, songs, and dances, including the cakewalk, which was a popular dance move. For the first time in Broadway history, the performers sang and danced simultaneously. The hour-long show was a triumph, and Cook and the cast were elated. Cook later said he was “so delirious” he became drunk on a glass of water. Cook would later write, “Negroes were at last on Broadway, and there to stay. Gone was the uff-dah of the minstrel! Gone the Massa Linkum stuff. We were artists and we were going a long, long way,” according to the Washington Post .

Though he had left his classical roots behind for popular music, Cook brought his classical training to his ragtime compositions. According to Jass.com, African American critic James Weldon Johnson considered Cook “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 breathtaking.” Ragtime music was usually considered a lower-class form of entertainment, but the hit song from Clorindy , “Darktown Is Out Tonight,” could be heard whistled in barbershops and on street corners around New York City.

Begins Using Pseudonym

At the beginning of the 1900s, Cook composed many popular songs. His first published song, “Darktown Is Out Tonight,” appeared under the pseudonym “Will Marion” in 1899; he subsequently used the name Will Marion Cook. Later he worked as composer-in-chief and musical director for Williams and Walker’s Broadway shows.

In 1899, Cook married Abbie Mitchell, a lead singer with the Memphis Students. 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. She opened a musical and dramatic studio in New York after retiring from the stage. The couple had a son, Mercer Cook, who went on to teach romance languages at Howard University and served as ambassador to the Republic of Niger and special envoy to Senegal and Gambia.

Cook was known as a bitter and angry man, who never felt he received the recognition he was due. He was troubled by the belief that audiences wanted to hear only light-hearted music from African American composers. According to Jass.com, critic 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.”

Passes Torch to Duke Ellington

In 1918, Cook founded and led his own band, the Southern Syncopaters, later known as the New York Syncopated Orchestra. The group toured Europe and performed before England’s George V. Band member Sidney Bechet began playing the soprano saxophone during this tour and would go on to become a jazz great. When Cook returned home to New York, he led a Clef Club orchestra, which featured vocalist Paul Robeson.

Cook first met Duke Ellington in the early 1920s and became a mentor to him. In his autobiography, Ellington wrote that he would bring his unfinished compositions to Cook for guidance. He would ask Cook, whom he called “Dad,” what direction he might take to finish the piece. “‘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.’”

Cook died in New York on July 19, 1944. He and his father are both buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. Their family home in Washington became an administrative office building on the Howard University campus.

Coolidge, William David [next] [back] Cook, Scott - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Scott Cook, Social and Economic Impact

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