Will Marion Cook was an African-American composer who managed to create a series of successful Broadway plays and compositions in the late 19th Century. Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar created the first all-Black play to open at a top Broadway house in 1898.
Cook was born January 27, 1869 in Washington, D.C. He studied violin at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music from 1884 – 1887 before studying abroad in Germany. Upon returning to the states, Cook began studying under Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who also taught the legendary composer Harry Burleigh. Like Burleigh, Cook was fascinated with the structure and timing of Black music, most especially the negro spiritual.
Cook and Dunbar’s play was completed in 1898 and had a successful run at the Casino Theatre’s Roof Garden, one of Broadway’s well-known performance venues at the time. The play was titled Clorindy or The Origin of the Cakewalk and was an immediate success. It was Cook’s first composed score and led to him becoming the first Black composer to conduct a white theater orchestra. Cook married Clorindy lead actress Abbie Mitchell and the couple had two children, Will and Marion.
Cook began working with a Black comedy troupe, Williams and Walker Company, and on musical comedies for other productions. It was Cook’s score for the WWC that cemented him as one of the century’s brightest stars. Cook became such a force in music that he even performed in England for King George V.
After a long and slowly declining career, Cook released his last work in 1929. He passed in Harlem in 1944.
PHOTO: Public Domain