Will Vodery (October 8, 1885 - November 18, 1951) was an African-American composer, conductor, orchestrator, and arranger, and one of the few black Americans of his time to make a name for himself as a composer on Broadway, working largely for Florenz Ziegfeld.
While Vodery did compose the music for a show called From Dixie to Broadway (1924), he is most famous for the vocal and choral arrangements that he created for the original Broadway stage production of the classic musical Show Boat (1927). His arrangements for the show were used again in the London production of the show (1928), and the first revival on Broadway (1932), as well as in both the Universal Pictures film version (1936), and the prologue to the part-talkie 1929 film version (also by Universal) of Edna Ferber's novel, on which the show is based. Vodery's original arrangements were combined with new ones by Pembroke Davenport for the 1946 Broadway revival of Show Boat.
Vodery also created the vocal arrangements for several editions of the Ziegfeld Follies. He also orchestrated George Gershwin's one-act opera Blue Monday. With Will Marion Cook, he wrote the show Swing Along (1929).
On 9 November 1929, the New York Age ("Activities of Union Musicians") noted Vodery's engagement by the Fox film studios in Los Angeles sometime in the preceding few months.
Vodery was an important influence on Duke Ellington. Also in 1929, Vodery, in his capacity as Ziegfeld's musical supervisor, recommended Ellington for Show Girl. According to author John Hasse, "Perhaps during the run of Show Girl, Ellington received what he later termed 'valuable lessons in orchestration from Will Vodery.'" Author Barry Ulanov wrote of this relationship: "From Vodery, as he (Ellington) says himself, he drew his chromatic convictions, his uses of the tones ordinarily extraneous to the diatonic scale, with the consequent alteration of the harmonic character of his music, its broadening, The deepening of his resources. It has become customary to ascribe the classical influences upon Duke – Delius, Debussy and Ravel – to direct contact with their music. Actually his serious appreciation of those and other modern composers, came after his meeting with Vodery."
Vodery, however, is largely unknown today, partly because he received no screen credit in the 1936 film version of Show Boat, and partly because some modern productions of the show do not use his arrangements. He died on November 18, 1951, only four months after Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1951 Technicolor film version of Show Boat, on which he did not work, had been released.
- Broadway: An Encyclopedia by Ken Bloom - Routledge; 2 edition (November 11, 2003) ISBN 0-415-93704-3
- Hasse, John Edward (1995), Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington, New York: Da Capo, ISBN 0-306-80614-2
- Ulanov, Barry (1946), Duke Ellington, Creative Age Press
- Will Vodery at IMDB
- Will Vodery at the Internet Broadway Database
- Miles Kreuger Show Boat: The History of a Classic American Musical ISBN 0-306-80401-8