Swing Along

Marva Carter

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780195108910
Published online January 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780199865796 | DOI:
Swing Along

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Renowned today as a prominent African-American in music theater and the arts community, composer, conductor, and violinist Will Marion Cook was a key figure in the development of American music from the 1890s to the 1920s. This book looks at his life’s story, drawing on his unfinished autobiography and his wife Abbie’s memoir. A violin virtuoso, Cook studied at Oberlin College (his parents’ alma mater), Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik with Joseph Joachim, and New York’s national Conservatory of Music with Antonín Dvořák. Cook wrote music for a now-lost production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and then devoted the majority of his career to black musical comedies due to limited opportunities available to him as a black composer. He was instrumental in showcasing his Southern Syncopated Orchestra in the prominent concert halls of the United States and Europe, even featuring New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet, who later introduced European audiences to authentic blues. Once mentored by Frederick Douglas, Will Marion Cook went on to mentor Duke Ellington, paving the path for orchestral concert jazz. Through interpretive and musical analyses, the book traces Cook’s successful evolution from minstrelsy to musical theater. Written with his collaborator, the distinguished poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Cook’s musicals infused American musical theater with African-American music, consequently altering the direction of American popular music. Cook’s In Dahomeym was the first full-length Broadway musical to be written and performed by blacks. Alongside his accomplishments, Cook’s contentious side is revealed—a man known for his aggressiveness, pride, and constant quarrels, he became his own worst enemy in regards to his career. The book also sets Cook’s life against the backdrop of the changing cultural and social milieu: the black theatrical tradition, white audiences’ reaction to black performers, and the growing consciousness and sophistication of blacks in the arts, especially music.

Keywords: African-American music; American music theater; black composer; black musical comedies; Southern Syncopated Orchestra; Sidney Bechet; Paul Lawrence Dunbar; Duke Ellington; orchestral concert jazz

Book.  194 pages.  Illustrated.

Subjects: American Music

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