Will Marion Cook - Biography

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Will Marion (Mercer) Cook was born January 27, 1869 in Washington, D.C. His parents John Hartwell Cook and Isabel Marion Lewis met and married while students at Oberlin in Ohio. John was one of the first graduates of Howard University's Law Program and Isabel served as an instructor in the Industrial Department of the university. Later his father would serve on the Board of Trustees and become Dean of the Law School.

As a young student Will studied violin and composition at Oberlin Conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York under Anton Dvorak and in Berlin, Germany at Hochschule fur Musik. Convinced that he would not be taken serious as a classical musician because of his race, he turned to composing works that drew on the idioms and themes of African-American folklore and music.

Throughout the 1890s and 1900s, he composed for the stage shows of Bert Williams, the leading black comic and vaudevillian. In 1889 Cook produced and wrote the music for Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk. This debut in the theater world was a series of skits. The skits were written in an hour-long session between Cook and the celebrated African American dialect poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It was the first musical comedy written, directed, and performed entirely by African-American artists. The show opened at the Casino Theater Roof Garden in New York to rave reviews and enjoyed success on Broadway and in London. The beauty of the lead dancer Ada Overton Walker prompted the cakewalk dance craze among even the high-society of New York.

Cook continued to write popular songs, sometimes under the name Will Marion. He was eventually named Composer-in-Chief and Musical Director for William Walker's Broadway shows. He went on to compose the music for a number of popular black musicals, including In Dahomey (1903) , a musical that had over 1,100 performances in the the U.S. and England during the period 1902 - 1905. Created and performed entirely by African-Americans, it showcased the talents of conservatory-trained composer Will Marion Cook and the popular vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. Cook composed Abyssinia in 1906, but his reliance on ragtime left him behind the changing tastes. He led his Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a huge ragtime and concert ensemble, and composed "I'm Coming, Virginia" and "Mammy" in the 1910s.

The last European tour by his orchestra was in 1919. It was then that critics noted that he had developed an emerging jazz style. Cook became a free-lance composer with New York music publishers and was an influence on Duke Ellington's early work as a composer. His wife, Abbie Mitchell Cook (1884-1960), was a soprano who had a career first in his shows and then in other productions. Their son, Mercer Cook (1903), was a noted scholar at Howard University and served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and Senegal.

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