Will Marion Cook
William Mercer Cook (January 27, 1869 – July 19, 1944), better known as Will Marion Cook, was an African-American composer and violinist from the United States. Cook was a student of Antonín Dvořák and performed for King George V among others. He is probably best known for his popular songs and Broadway musicals, such as Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk and In Dahomey.
Will Marion Cook (né William Mercer Cook) was born in Washington, D.C. to John Hartwell Cook, dean of the liberal Law School at Howard University, and his wife, Isabel. When his father died of tuberculosis in 1879, Cook's mother eventually had to send all her three children away; following a violent altercation with a teacher during a strapping incident, the 10-year-old Will went to live with his maternal grandparents (ex-slaves who had bought their freedom) in Chattanooga, where he first experienced "real Negro melodies" during what he would later call his "soul period".
Cook's musical talent was apparent at an early age. At fifteen, he was sent to the Oberlin Conservatory to study violin. With help from members of the African American community, his benefit recitals were sponsored to help him afford to study abroad. From 1887 to 1889, he studied at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik, working with Joseph Joachim's former student, violinist Heinrich Jacobson; Jacobson served as Chairman of the Orchestral Instruments Department. Although it is often stated that Cook studied abroad for nine years, there is no evidence of this.
Cook married the young singer Abbie Mitchell in 1898. They had a daughter, Marion Abigail Cook, in 1900, and a son, Will Mercer Cook, in 1903. Their daughter, raised by family members as had been Mitchell herself, married dancer Louis Douglas. Their son became a professor at Howard University and United States Ambassador to Niger and Senegal.
During 1894 and 1895, Cook studied with Dvořák and John White at the National Conservatory of Music. Cook had performed professionally as a student and made his debut in 1889 in Washington, DC. His performance career as a soloist was short lived, however.
In 1890, he became director of a chamber orchestra touring the East Coast. He prepared Scenes from the Opera of Uncle Tom's Cabin for performance. The performance, which was to take place at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, was canceled. Clorindy; or, The Origin of the Cakewalk—a musical sketch comedy in collaboration with Paul Laurence Dunbar — was his next composition, in 1898. It was the first all-black show to play in a prestigious Broadway house, Casino Theatre's Roof Garden. After this period, he was composer-in-chief and musical director for the George Walker-Bert Williams Company. As he continued to write, he produced many successful musicals.
Best known for his songs, Cook used folk elements in an original and distinct manner. Many of these songs first appeared in his musicals. The songs were written for choral groups or for solo singers. Some were published in A Collection of Negro Songs (1912). Later in his career, Cook was an active choral and orchestral conductor. He produced several concerts and organized many choral societies in both New York and in Washington, D.C. The New York Syncopated Orchestra, which he founded, toured the United States in 1918 and then went to England in 1919 for a command performance for King George V. Among his company were assistant director Will Tyers, jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, and Cook's wife, Abbie Mitchell.
One of his last shows was Swing Along (1929), written with Will Vodery.
Cook is buried in Washington, D.C's Woodlawn Cemetery.
- The Policy Players (1900)
- Uncle Eph's Christmas (1901), a Broadway musical
- The Cannibal King (1901), with Will Accooe
- In Dahomey (1903)
- The Southerners (1904), a Broadway musical
- The Ghost Ship (1907)
- The Traitor (1913)
- In Darkeydom (1914), with James Reese Europe
- The Cannibal King (1914)
- Swing Along (1929), Will Vodery
- Rain Song: Exhoration—A Negro Sermon (1912)
- Riis, Thomas (2007–2011). Cook, Will Marion(subscription required). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 2011-09-16.
- Carter (2008), pp. 6-10.
- "Abbie Mitchell"(subscription required), in Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992.
- Bernard L. Peterson, Profiles of African American stage performers and theatre people, 1816-1960. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. p. 61
- Ethel Waters and Charles Samuels, His Eye Is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1992. p. 189.
- David A. Goldfarb, "Douglas, Marion (1920-)".
- "Mercer Cook", Answers.com.
- "Mercer Cook Biography", The History Makers.
- Woll, Allen (1989). Black Musical Theater. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0-8071-1469-3.
- Carter, Marva Griffin (2008). Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-510891-0
- Riis, Thomas L., ed. (1996). The Music and Scripts of In Dahomey. Music of the United States of America (MUSA) vol. 5. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
- Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans: A History. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0-393-97141-4
- Biography of Will Marion Cook at the electronic Performing Arts Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress
- In Dahomey at Music of the United States of America (MUSA)
- Free scores by Will Marion Cook at the International Music Score Library Project (Cruel Papa!)