Will Marion Cook

Another one of Dvorak’s students during his short time in America was Will Marion Cook (1869-1944). Cook's early career was focused on classical music. He was born to free African-American parents (his father became the first Dean of the Howard University Law School) and began violin at age 13. When he was 15, Cook studied violin at Oberlin College. Frederick Douglass helped organize a fundraiser to send Cook to study in Europe, where he studied from 1887-89 at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and associate of Brahms. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1890, he was unable to find employment at any musical institution, so began to teach privately. One of his students was Clarence Cameron White. Cook's earliest composition was Scenes from the Opera of Uncle Tom's Cabin--intended for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, but which was not performed. In 1894-95 he continued his studies at the National Conservatory for Music with Dvořák. 

Cook turned to popular music as his classical career was not successful. He began writing songs and formed a publishing company. His first big success was the musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898). He remained an important figure in the new century. He wrote and published many songs, was prominent as a conductor, and was the musical director for Bert Williams and George Walker's string of groundbreaking musicals. Cook also wrote music for The Southerners (1904), the first Broadway show to feature a racially integrated cast. 

Outside the theater world, Cook gained a solid reputation as a choral and orchestral conductor. A historic concert on May 2, 1912, at Carnegie Hall featured his 150-voice chorus in a performance of Swing Along! In 1918, he founded the New York Syncopated Orchestra, later renamed the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. The instrumental ensemble, which included a twenty-voice choir, performed on tour throughout the United States and Europe until 1920. 

As mentor and teacher, Cook influenced a generation of young African-American musicians, including Duke Ellington and singer Eva Jessye, the first black woman to become a professional choral conductor. Ellington acknowledged his debt to Cook noting that when he needed direction for developing a theme and asked Cook for advice, Cook told him, "You know you should go to the conservatory, 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." Happily, Ellington followed this advice.


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