Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook

Publication Information




Prelude: Exhortation

Chapter 1: Boyhood

Chapter 2: From Oberlin to Berlin

Chapter 3: The Chicago World's Fair of 1893

Chapter 4: The National Conservatory and Beginning of Musical Career

Chapter 5: "Broadway, Here I Come!"

Chapter 6: In Dahomey

Chapter 7: The "Students" and the Stage

Chapter 8: Removing the "Minstrel Mask"

Chapter 9: The Clef Club, Darkydom, and World War I

Chapter 10: The Southern Syncopated Orchestra

Chapter 11: "A Hell of a Life"

Chapter 12: A Composer's Legacy

Postlude "Swing Along!"


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. In this insightful biography, Marva Griffin Carter offers the first definitive look at this pivotal life's story, drawing on both Cook's 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 Antonin Dvorak. 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, Carter 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 Dahomey, hailed by Gerald Bordman as "one of the most important events in American Musical Theater history," was the first full-length Broadway musical to be written and performed by blacks.

Alongside his accomplishments, Carter reveals Cook's contentious side-a man known for his aggressiveness, pride, and constant quarrels, who became his own worst enemy in regards to his career. Carter further 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.

Biographical Information

(b. 1970) Marva Griffin Carter, an associate professor of music history and literature in the School of Music at Georgia State University, teaches courses in the historical periods of Western art music, world music, and basic improvisation. She has earned degrees from the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music in applied piano and from Boston University and the University of Illinois in musicology. For a decade, she was the organist at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. She has lectured at national and international musicological meetings and has published articles in journals, dictionaries, and encyclopedias concerning the music of African Americans. Her research interests include the music of the Black church, the history of jazz, and African retentions in the music of the New World. She is the author of Swing Along: The Musical Life of Will Marion Cook (2008, Oxford University Press). Carter was interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air in a program that featured Will Marion Cook’s life and music.