Cook, standing, in 1929; at the wheel is legendary bandleader Fletcher Henderson.
Frank Driggs Collection/Getty ImagesCook, standing, in 1929; at the wheel is legendary bandleader Fletcher Henderson.

Will Marion Cook is a name to reckon with in the history of black American music. “His great genius will always be a guiding star to those of us who remain,” black violinist Clarence Cameron White wrote on hearing of Cook’s death. Trumpeter Arthur Briggs called Cook “the greatest real musician ever.” Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake praised him as a mentor.

Yet while Ellington’s and Blake’s careers are well documented, only academics can describe Cook’s. Even diehard fans of the American popular songbook are hard-pressed to name one of his songs. The first recording devoted to his work appeared only a few years ago, and Marva Griffin Carter’s 2008 biography, Swing Along, is the first since his death in 1944. In the end, the fact of Cook’s importance is better known than its reason. A significant composer, but of what? Didn’t he write something like the first black Broadway musical? Yes, but what else?

The tale most often told about Cook has him returning from conservatory training at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik in 1889 and performing a concert at Carnegie Hall. When a reviewer praised him as “the world’s greatest Negro violinist,” Cook stormed into his office, smashed his violin to bits on the man’s desk, and yelled, “I am not the world’s greatest Negro violinist. I am the greatest violinist in the world!” He never played the violin again.

Cook’s words might suggest that racism explains his obscurity. Yet a few years later, Cook gave the world a song with these lyrics:

Such queer foolin’ now I never could stand,
Didn’t want my Lula loving no nigger man,
I then grabbed that woman just to scare her a bit,
The way that wench did holler, well you’d tho’t she had a fit,
Up jump’d the other nigger and I grabbed at his arm,
When he drew his steel I knew he meant to do me harm . . .

Racism is hardly the only reason people aren’t doing this one at the piano bars. Both too far from and uncomfortably close to our times, Cook’s music is not the kind we moderns want in our iPods—yet without it, what’s in our iPods would be vastly different.

Unlike so many blacks born just after the Civil War, Cook didn’t grow up among sharecroppers in a dusty Southern town. He was born in 1869 in Washington, D.C., to two of the lucky 4 million blacks who had never known slavery. Both parents were Oberlin graduates, and his father was a Howard University law professor. When Cook was ten, his father died, and the boy spent some unhappy years living with his authoritarian blacksmith grandfather in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At 14, he entered Oberlin’s conservatory program, where he excelled at violin and was eventually sent to the Berlin Hochschule to study under world-class violinist Joseph Joachim.

Returning home in 1889, Cook seemed on his way to becoming a classical musician. In 1893, a group of black artists, offended that the Chicago World’s Fair of that year had acknowledged black people only with a troop of Dahomeans performing “savage” dances, organized a “Colored American Day” concert within the fairgrounds. Cook played a leading role in bringing it about. The concert featured classical singing and poetry recitals and included excerpts from an Uncle Tom’s Cabin opera that Cook had composed. The opera is lost; if it had survived, it would provide a glimpse of the Bach-Beethoven-Brahms mind-set that Cook was about to leave behind.

The shift began when Cook moved to New York to study at the National Conservatory of Music under Antonín Dvoˇrák. Dvoˇrák believed that American classical composers should mine American folk music, especially black music, and had done so himself by embedding black folk melodies into his symphony From the New World. Cook decided to go a step further and use the black musical idiom to create a new music entirely. He began hectoring other black musicians about the urgency of creating a “Negro” statement in music. He stressed that “the Negro in music and on the stage ought to be a Negro, a genuine Negro,” rather than waste time imitating what “the white artist could always do as well, generally better.”

The word “stage” was key: Cook saw musical theater as riper for his ideas than the concert hall. In the 1890s, black musicals were fancy minstrel shows, while mainstream theater music consisted mostly of bland, forgettable marches, waltzes, and parlor ballads. Cook envisioned a black musical that rose above minstrel barbarity but maintained enough rhythmic and lyrical energy to liven up white shows’ musical pablum. More to the point, he wanted to inject Broadway music with syncopation, which stresses beats that usually go unstressed: Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” is Exhibit A. Cook wanted to make show music, in a word, hot.

He first pulled it off in 1898 with the hour-long musical sketch Clorindy, written with black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in an all-night session lubricated with two dozen beers, a bottle of whiskey, and raw steak with onions and peppers. Clorindy was disqualified from being the first black Broadway musical on a technicality: it played in a rooftop theater, a popular type of summertime venue before the advent of air conditioning. Still, it heralded the beginning of a new era. Cook, who conducted the show, remembered opening night: “At the finish of the opening chorus, the applause and cheering were so tumultuous that I simply stood there transfixed, my hand in the air, unable to move until [lead actor Ernest] Hogan rushed down to the footlights and shouted ‘What’s the matter, son? Let’s go!’ ”

Clorindy culminated in a high-energy cakewalk, which Cook recalled fondly nearly 50 years later: “My chorus sang like Russians, dancing meanwhile like Negroes, and cakewalking like angels, black angels! When the last note was sounded, the audience stood and cheered for at least ten minutes.” And no wonder: to a white person in 1898, syncopation made for the most devilishly catchy music ever heard. (A few years later, a Boston reviewer wrote that a black musical’s “catchy refrains kept the head nodding and the toe tapping all over the theater by means of their irresistible rhythm”—a musical experience that we now take for granted but that was brand-new at the time.)

After the show, Cook and the cast went to a bar to wait for the newspaper reviews. Cook was so excited, he later recounted, that he mistook his water for wine and got “drunk” on it. “Negroes are at last on Broadway, and are here to stay!” he exulted. And for a while, they were. The reviews were favorable, and at summer’s end, a second Clorindy company settled in New York until Christmas, while the original production toured the country under various names for two years. Cook had arrived, and he became a dinner regular at the Marshall Hotel on 53rd Street, a combination meeting hall and residence where black Broadway movers and shakers rubbed elbows and discussed what black musical theater should become.

The names of most of the Marshall regulars are footnotes today. Cook would have shared their fate if not for writing the music for In Dahomey (1903), the true “first black Broadway musical,” which played indoors at the New York Theater and became an instant sensation. The company soon played London (including a command performance at Buckingham Palace), toured England, returned for a second stand in New York, and then toured America through 1905.

The show’s plot concerned a pair of detectives looking for a stolen “silver casket with a cat drawed on the outside” who follow the trail to Dahomey (present-day Benin) in Africa, where they decide to stay and make their fortune. Academics have sought sociological implications in the plot’s back-to-Africa aspect, but in musicals at the time, moving the action to a foreign land—which meant exotic costumes and such—was commonplace: characters in white operettas typically visited locales of the “Ruritania” variety, for example. In any case, musicals’ plots in this period were largely episodic shtick. In Dahomey stood out for two reasons. First was the comedy team of Bert Williams and George Walker. Williams was the sad-sack straight man to Walker’s dancing dandy. The duo had been making a name over the past few years, including headlining the second Clorindy company in New York. With In Dahomey, they became the toast of Broadway.

But what also made In Dahomey the hottest ticket in 1903 New York was Cook’s driving choral arrangements of such songs as “On Emancipation Day” and especially “Swing Along,” which black choruses were regularly singing into the 1950s. Cook was, as black stage composer and future NAACP president James Weldon Johnson designated him, “the first competent composer to take what was then known as rag-time and work it out in a musicianly way.”

During the rest of the aughts, Cook wrote and supervised music for two more hit Williams-and-Walker vehicles in the same vein. Abyssinia took place in an Ethiopia depicted as distinctly civilized, though this time our boys came home. Bandanna Land was a less ambitious, but notably successful, tale in which Walker tried to fleece Williams out of his fortune. The weirdly infectious new music was the main selling point of both. Bandanna Land struck the drama critic at the New York Dramatic Mirror as “one of the rare plays that one feels like witnessing a second time,” an indication of how inert musical comedy had seemed to discerning theatergoers before Cook came along.

Broadway took notice. White musicals began including syncopated numbers as novelties. Johnson described how white revue producer George Lederer adopted the choreographic and musical heat of Cook’s shows:

[Lederer] judged correctly that the practice of the Negro chorus, to dance strenuously and sing at the same time, if adapted to the white stage would be a profitable novelty; so he departed considerably from the model of the easy, leisurely movements of the English light opera chorus. He also judged that some injection of Negro music would produce a like result. Mr. Lederer was, at least, the grandfather of the modern American musical play.

And that, in turn, makes Cook the great-grandfather.

So why has there been no hit Broadway revue of Cook’s work—presumably called Swing Along—in the manner of Sophisticated Ladies for Duke Ellington and Eubie! for Eubie Blake? Why is Cook more written about than performed? For one, there is a language problem. Here, for example, are lyrics from that opening showstopping chorus of Clorindy:

Warm coons a-prancin’,
Swell coons a-dancin’,
Tough coons who’ll want to fight;
So bring ’long yo’ blazahs,
Fetch out yo’ razahs,
Darktown is out tonight!

Similarly, In Dahomey’s “Swing Along” begins, “Swing along, chillun, swing along de lane.” Amos ’n’ Andy–style minstrel dialect was the lyrical warp and woof of Cook’s theater music.

This was partly an accommodation to white expectations. At the turn of the last century, “coon songs”—many written by whites—depicted blacks as violent and hypersexualized. Blacks had to toe the line to an extent. Even In Dahomey’s opening tableau had to be the standard minstrel-show kickoff, with the cast standing in a semicircle shaking tambourines. When black writers attempted black musicals in standard English, white critics roasted them for not being “Negro” enough.

Further, though Paul Laurence Dunbar winced when hearing his Clorindy lyrics sung before a white audience, no other black lyricist of the period was that sensitive. Black people a century ago didn’t hear these lyrics the way we do today. When slavery was a more recent memory, northern black urbanites warmly cherished the “Ebonics” that we now view as inner-city gutter talk; they saw it as “dialect” and associated it with their grandparents and the South. Dunbar himself wrote poems in “dialect,” and his discomfort over Clorindy had more to do with subject matter than syntax.

Even “coon” didn’t carry the sting among blacks that we would assume. It was used as a term of affection, precisely as some blacks use “nigger” today, as in the expression for good friend: “my ace boon coon.” In 1904, black drama critic Sylvester Russell wrote in the Indianapolis Freeman that “the Negro race has no objections to the word ‘coon.’ ”

Nevertheless, we do now, and what Russell heard as quaint reminds us of burned cork and Stepin Fetchit. This leaves a critical mass of Cook’s work all but unperformable. Isolated songs can be ventured in a clinical context of warning and apology, but only by blacks (as in a 2001 National Public Radio segment on Cook). An actual performance of a show like In Dahomey is unthinkable.

Another reason Cook’s work can’t move us the way it moved his audiences is that what was infectious then isn’t especially “hot” now. Cook’s musical language was firmly rooted in the European conservatory tradition, complete with marches, semiquavers, and 6/8 time. Hoping to be a “black Beethoven,” as he told his son, he sought to show that black people could master classical music’s language. A lyric from In Dahomey’s “Swing Along” went, “Come along Mandy / Come along Sue / White folks a-watchin’ / An’ seein’ what you do.” Musicologist Thomas Riis calls that line a synecdoche for the show; one could also call it the synecdoche for Cook’s life.

In fact, much of his music is only very lightly syncopated, if at all, and qualifies as solid light opera. That was big news in a black show at the time: In Dahomey’s “Society” number goes through solos, duets, ensembles, and recitatives, and ends in a waltz. To Cook and his contemporaries, this was black people just two generations past slavery in their Sunday best. Today, because our jaws do not drop to see a black person singing opera, “Society” has only antiquarian appeal. Meanwhile, a mere dash of ragtime-style syncopation was enough to make a song big news, bracingly seductive compared with the operetta pastry of Victor Herbert or the marches and jigs of George M. Cohan. What read as fascinatingly “black” in 1900 was music about as syncopated as Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”

But syncopation is addictive, and Americans have sought ever stronger doses since Cook’s day. The gentle little kick of ragtime was the gateway drug for an America that moved on to traditional jazz, then swing, then rhythm and blues, then rock, and now hip-hop. From our vantage point, Cook’s music sounds as polite as the straw hats and calling cards of its era. In 1912, the Clef Club, an employment agency for top-quality black musicians, held a concert featuring Cook compositions and others regarded as fiendishly infectious—but at a 1986 re-creation of the concert, many in the audience found the music surprisingly tame. Yesterday’s hot pepper is today’s juice and cookies.

Also keeping us at arm’s length from Cook is the fact that he did not, in truth, have the particular gift that figures like Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert possessed of creating melodies that take hold and never let go. None of Cook’s songs, fine as they are, exerts the remorseless grip of Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

If they did, then sheet music alone could have kept Cook’s legacy alive, complete with songbook LPs devoted to his work. Instead, his most lucrative hit was one he wrote only the lyrics for: “I’m Comin’, Virginia.”

Rather, Cook was legendary as an arranger and conductor—and the technology of the time couldn’t preserve those gifts for posterity. James Weldon Johnson’s recollection was not that Cook’s Clorindy songs themselves were what put the show over, but that the “choruses and finales in Clorindy, complete novelties as they were, sung by a lusty chorus, were simply breath-taking. Broadway had something entirely new.” “Swing Along” was one of the highlights of the Clef Club concert of 1912, whose all-black 145-piece orchestra included 47 mandolins and ten pianos. “All the musicians, while playing their fiddle or jerking their banjos, joined in singing this rousing tune in good four-part harmony, lilting, swelling, thunderously bursting forth on the big fermata, and winding up in a frenzy,” wrote a music-publishing rep who attended.

One yearns to get an earful—but can’t. A 1914 recording of Cook conducting his original arrangement of “Swing Along” gives a hint of what all the fuss was about, with its savory hesitations on the offbeat and its bass countermelody. But even with the most advanced restoration techniques, a recording of people singing almost a century ago remains dim, scratchy, and brief. Cook’s gift for choral writing went all but unrecorded, leaving us with mere descriptions.

Nor, because film was still silent, do we have a filmic record of his conducting, which also lives only in story. He conducted Clorindy facing the audience. During the teens and early twenties, Cook made his living mostly by conducting all-black orchestras on tour. Blues composer W. C. Handy described in awe how Cook “set the tempo with the sway of his body and developed perfect crescendos without a baton by the use of his opened and extended palms.” His conducting was, by all accounts, legendary—but you won’t see clips of him doing it on YouTube.

Cook lived until 1944, so we might expect that technology would have caught up with him. However, the final 25 years of his life were a long decrescendo, mostly because he was a bit mad. Given to bedridden spells of “melancholia” and abrupt rages of the sort that could leave a violin in pieces, Cook was known for throwing his baton at musicians. He was married only briefly, to a 13-year-old singer in the Clorindy company, Abbie Mitchell, whom he had made pregnant. He beat her and then came after her with a gun in an alimony dispute. (She went on to originate the role of Clara in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.)

Cook’s temper lost him opportunities. After Clorindy, he was such a hot property that he was hired to write a few songs for a white musical, The Casino Girl. However, America in 1900 wasn’t ready for a black man to conduct a white orchestra, and the orchestra under a white conductor’s baton was so unfamiliar with ragtime syncopation that it could barely render Cook’s music properly. After opening night, Cook was so incensed at hearing his songs played poorly that he seized the orchestra’s sheet music and destroyed it—rather than taking his place as the first black composer in a white Broadway show and enjoying the future commissions that would likely have ensued. The numbers were replaced by songs written by white men. In an unpublished autobiography written at the end of his life, Cook was sadly aware that he had often been his own worst enemy: “My failure to gain the goal was not because of color; rather, because of uncontrolled passions, too violent a resentment against real or fancied wrongs; too large and too visible a chip on each shoulder and to be sure I missed nothing, another chip on my woolly head.”

It also didn’t help that Cook never embraced jazz. By the late twenties, black jazz-band leaders like Duke Ellington were becoming household names by taking advantage of sound films and improvements in sound recording. Cook, in contrast, was coaching younger black musicians, who affectionately called him “Dad Cook.” He was a mentor in the shadows to Ellington, Blake, and black chorus leaders Eva Jessye and Hall Johnson, but he no longer wrote shows himself and penned only the occasional song—in what was, by then, the style of another time.

In 1929, for instance, he wound up as the vocal arranger for the Broadway musical Great Day, with a score by Vincent Youmans, famous for hits like “Tea for Two.” The rehearsal pianist, one Harold Arlen, played a catchy little figure during breaks. Cook, in “Dad” mode, told the pianist that he should expand it into a song. He did, creating the hit “Get Happy,” and went on to become one of the Golden Age composers of American popular song. Great Day, however, was a catastrophe that scraped along for a mere month, doing nothing for Cook’s career.

By that point, gigs were few and far between for Cook anyway. He was suffering from tuberculosis; later came heart disease, and pancreatic cancer ended his life in 1944. Yet he had written his life off as a misfire as early as 1927. In a letter to the New York News accusing white Harlem Renaissance promoter Carl Van Vechten of a condescending attitude toward black music, he waxed personal:

Too much praise and too easily earned money kept me for thirty-five years from becoming a master. Now it is too late. Your job as a lover of humanity, of the Arts as a critic, is to see that my great genius race does not fail as has . . . WILL MARION COOK.

Here we see again the Cook who refused to submit to being the “greatest Negro violinist”: apparently, he felt that he’d sold out by making his livelihood with show music and conducting “hot” concerts. For Cook, the true goal was a new kind of classical music, something grander than the proto-jazz of the black musicals in the twenties spearheaded by Blake’s Shuffle Along, or even than the true jazz that Duke Ellington would create not long afterward. Presumably, he had something in mind along the lines of Porgy and Bess, which premiered eight years after his letter to the News. Like the Victorian that he was, Cook thought of the concert hall as where real music was played.

He didn’t realize that he had been the primum mobile for something just as important. Once he had shown America how to swing in his Broadway scores, white composers began “ragging” songs as a novelty: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) was a case in point. By the mid-teens, Jerome Kern was writing scores for the tiny Princess Theater with catchy tunes that would have been classified as “ragtime” ten years earlier, but were now simply regarded as show music. Teenagers George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers attended the Princess Theater shows, agog at this new way of writing pop. The rest was history, and Cook was the one who set it going.

He did it so very long ago. Where the Marshall Hotel once stood is now the subway station at 53rd and Seventh Avenue. In his autobiography, Cook’s verdict on his life was that “many men have told the story of their lives and achievements. They were great and left to posterity a blaze of light to brighten the way. I have dreamed much and achieved little.”

But Cook sold himself short. Music critic Alex Ross notes that “Cook’s musicals, sophisticated in technique and assertive in tone, anticipated the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance.” Cook would likely have felt more gratified by the effect he had on American music in general: Thomas Riis credits him as the leader among his Marshall Hotel colleagues in “bringing syncopated song to Broadway and thereby injecting a kind of metrical flexibility into our stage music that it has never lost.”

That is, because of the seed Cook planted, it was soon no longer “white folks a-watchin’ an’ seein’ what you do” but white folks doing it themselves—and without even knowing it. Richard Rodgers didn’t think of his title song to Oklahoma! as a “syncopated novelty.” Nor did his vocal director, Jay Blackton, think he was employing a “Negro” technique when he expanded the song into the kind of lusty choral arrangement now famous but unheard of before Clorindy. Today and for the past 11 years, the cast of Chicago has kicked off the show with the raffish “All That Jazz,” complete with dazzling choral arrangement, in a musical language that Broadway first learned from Cook three months after the start of the Spanish-American War. Will Marion Cook faded away, but he left us with the essence of the American popular songbook—like the Cheshire Cat leaving behind his smile.


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