Cook, Will Marion

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Cook, Will Marion

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  • Cook, William Mercer
  • Marion, Will

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Dates of existence

1869-01-27 - 1944-07-20


Will Marion Cook (January 27,1869 – July 20, 1944) was a musician, conductor, and composer born in Washington, D.C. to John Hartwell Cook and Marion Isabelle Lewis, free people of color before the Civil War. For a short time after his father’s death in 1879, Will lived with his maternal grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here, he is said to have heard “real Negro melodies” and folk music. In 1880, he returned to Washington, D.C. where he began to take music seriously. At the age of fourteen, he enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he studied for four years. After completing his studies there, he traveled to Germany where he studied for two years at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, training under Heinrich Jacobsen. Cook studied under Czech composer Antonin Dvorák at New York’s National Conservatory of Music.
Inspired by Dvorak, Cook began to experiment with compositions that maintained the integrity of the Negro spiritual. In 1898 Cook’s first composed score, for the one-act musical comedy Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, met with critical acclaim. The show’s successful run on the Roof Garden of the Casino Theatre in New York established Cook as a gifted composer. He made history with Clorindy by becoming the first African American to conduct a white theater orchestra.
In 1899 he married Abbie Mitchell, the show’s leading actress. They had two children, Marion and Mercer, before separating in 1906.
In 1900, Cook made his mark as a composer with several musical comedy productions often writing for the Williams and Walker Company (WWC), an all-black comedy troupe. His landmark score for their production of In Dahomey (1902-1905) in particular, not only brought Cook even more success, but also established the WWC as the leading black troupe of the decade. The show also marked a turning point for African American representation in vaudeville theater. The show ran for a total of four years in the United States and in the United Kingdom.


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In Dahomey

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Library of Congress

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Created 20210512 by Lisa Lobdell.



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