Monday, March 19, 2012

James Reese Europe & Will Marion Cook on 'Black Manhattan' of PRO; Vol. 2 Due in 2012; Essay on Will Marion Cook by Dominique-René de Lerma

[Black Manhattan: Theater and Dance Music of James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, and Members off the Legendary 'Clef Club'; The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra; Rick Benjamin, Conductor; New World Records 800611-2 (2003) (67:41)]

The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra (PRO), conducted by Rick Benjamin, came to our attention with its release of Scott Joplin Treemonisha; New World Records 80720 (2011). That recording has been acclaimed by print and online publications large and small, in the U.S. and abroad. This month Rick Benjamin informed us Volume 2 of Black Manhattan is planned:

“We are now in preproduction of a new audio recording - volume two of our 2003 album Black Manhattan: Music of the Legendary Clef Club.” He added that the release is scheduled for November 2012 on the New World Records label. He also said: “The producer is Judith Sherman, who is this year's Grammy Award winning 'Classical Producer of the Year.'" 

We had not reviewed the first Black Manhattan disc, so we arranged for a review copy. This recording presents an enjoyable collection of authentic songs which were popular before, during and shortly after World War I. We were happy to be introduced to James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook and a number of other African American composers and performers who helped lay the groundwork for the music of the Harlem Renaissance. The works are light and mostly brief, but some of the composers wrote classical or vocal art music as well. The arranger of the spiritual Deep River, Track 4, is the composer and baritone Henry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), whose works have been compiled by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma and are featured on his page at

Victor Carr, Jr. reviewed Black Manhattan for Classics Today, which rated both its Artistic Quality and Sound Quality at the highest possible level, “10.” Carr writes:

“This album collects ragtime and jazz classics of composer/conductor James Reese Europe and his contemporaries. The performances recreate the style of the legendary Clef Club, a ragtime orchestra composed of African American musicians that operated from 1910 to 1930. Europe was a prominent figure on the black music scene during this time, as was Will Marion Cook, whose In Dahomey was the first all-black musical, and its full-scale overture is this collection’s most substantial offering.”

The liner notes by Rick Benjamin tell us:

“James Reese Europe was, along with Will Marion Cook, perhaps the most famous African-American musician of the early twentieth century. His careers as a conductor, composer, organizer, and eloquent advocate of Negro music were closely followed and reported by the major newspapers and magazines. Europe was a tireless man and a gifted promoter. As a conductor and recording artist, he was not only an important figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz, but also a vital ambassador of authentic black music to millions of whites in the United States and overseas. James Reese Europe was born on February 22, 1880 in Mobile, Alabama. He grew up in musical surroundings.”

James Reese Europe co-wrote The Castle Perfect Trot (1914) with Ford T. Dabney. Europe also wrote Castle House Rag (1914). He and Chris Smith co-wrote Ballin' the Jack & What It Takes To Make Me Love You (medley fox trot (1914). Jame Reese Europe also wrote Hey There! (Hi There!) (one step, 1915), Congratulations (the Castles' Lame Duck Waltz, 1914) and The Clef Club March (1910).  The liner notes introduce Will Marion Cook:

“Will Marion Cook achieved nationwide fame and recognition during his career as a composer both for his musical comedy scores and for his serious works based on Negro folk materials. He became something of a living legend in New York music circles. Although extremely temperamental, combative, and abrasive, Cook's talent eventually made him, in Eileen Southern's words, 'the chief music advisor, teacher, coach, and patron to black musicians in New York, among them...Duke Ellington – who said of 'Dad' Cook, 'he was master of us all.'

“Will Mercer Cook (he later changed his middle name to 'Marion') was born in Washington, D.C. on January 27, 1869, to advantages enjoyed by few African Americans of his time. Both his parents were college graduates; his father was a lawyer and owned a comfortable home in the District of Columbia. In this refined setting, young Will first demonstrated his outstanding musical abilities. He took voice lessons as a boy, but in 1878 began his love affair with the violin. At age sixteen, it was decided Cook needed more advanced musical instruction, and he enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. After two years there, his violin teacher advised him to go to Europe for further study. Cook had no way to afford such an undertaking, but the great black leader Frederick Douglass organized a benefit concert which raised the necessary funds. In the fall of 1888, Will Cook went to Germany and attended the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Then he studied violin with the world-renowned virtuoso Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). Unfortunately, after two years at the conservatory, ill health forced his return home.

“Back in Washington in 1890, Will Cook was asked to conduct a new Negro chamber orchestra organized in Washington by C.A. Fleetwood and Frederick Douglass; under Cook's baton this ensemble made two tours of the mid-Atlantic states, venturing as far North as Boston. It was his first conducting experience.

“In 1893 while involved with musical events at the Chicago World's Fair, Cook met baritone Harry T. Burleigh. The young classical musicians struck up a conversation, and Burleigh, who was then a student of Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory in New York, recommended the school as a place where Cook might wish to go to continue his studies. Cook was convinced, and in 1894 moved to New York to attend the conservatory. Unfortunately, once there he took an almost instant dislike of Dvořák, and his relationship with Burleigh withered as well. He dropped out after a year.

At loose ends and probably desperate for a job, Will Cook found work as a staff composer for Bob Cole's All Star Stock Company. This was very likely his first professional encounter with the world of popular stage entertainment. But he soon clashed with Cole and quit the company. Cook returned to Washington to live with his widowed mother.

Throughout 1896 and '97 Will Cook made regular visits to New York's Black Bohemia. There, sometime in 1898, he encountered Williams & Walker, and this meeting inspired Cook to try his hand at composing a musical show. He returned to Washington and summoned the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) – then a government clerk – to write the libretto and lyrics. Literally overnight the two young men finished their work, a 'musical sketch' they dubbed Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk." 

From opening night on it was a rip-roaring success. Although not the first black musical in New York (the Bob Cole/Billy Johnson A Trip to Coontown had opened the previous April), it was the first time such a production had been presented in a major white venue and had received such unanimous acclaim by both the press and the public. Not a full-length work, it nevertheless incorporated snappy songs, comedy, and a new dance sensation known as the 'cakewalk.' Clorindy also boasted a chorus that sang and danced simultaneously – apparently the first time this had been attempted on any New York stage. And it also marked the first time a black man – Cook – had conducted a white New York theater orchestra.

In the wake of his success, Will Marion Cook became associated with the Williams & Walker Company as the conductor for their 1899 show The Policy Players. The team obviously liked his work, and for the next nine years Cook was their resident composer and musical director. His scores for them included the Sons of Ham (1900) and the 'in' shows, In Dahomey (1902), In Abyssinia (1906), and In Bandanna Land (1908).

In Dahomey was undoubtedly the show most important to the advancement of African-American musical theater. It was the first full-length musical created and performed by blacks to appear in a leading Broadway theater; it became the yardstick by which all subsequent black shows were measured. In Dahomey's witty book was by Jesse Shipp and its lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar; in its three acts Bert Williams starred as 'Shylock Homestead,' and George Walker as 'Rareback Pinkerton.' With a cast of fifty, In Dahomey toured several months prior to its big opening at Times Square's New York Theatre on February 18, 1903. The production was given good notices, and was well attended by a racially mixed audience. Will Cook's score, and especially his choral numbers (Including “Swing Along!”) were especially impressive and commented upon. As the Boston Evening Transcript put it, 'Musical comedies with real music are rarities, but this is one...The composer has succeeded in lifting Negro music above the plane of the so-called “Coon Song” without destroying the characteristics of the melodies, and he has provided a score which is likewise unusually diversified.'”
Disclosure: A review copy of this CD was provided by the record label.

Essay on Will Marion Cook
In our evaluation of a work, there are two basic considerations: one is to view the work objectively within a historical flow; the other is a question of artistic substance. We try to be objective in the later instance when our intuitive judgment is questioned, more validly when examining purely musical factors -- melodic structure and treatment, for example. From that viewpoint we might signal the clarinet quintet of Coleridge-Taylor as a work which in our mind (subjectivity becomes inevitable) has fresh melodic material that is interestingly treated as the work progresses. In the former approach, we would readily accept that his 24 Negro melodies have historical significance because they represent most probably the first instance of the spirituals serving as the basis for new treatment, anticipating what the future would hold in the instances soon after of Burleigh and Dett. That avoids the question of aesthetics totally.

The presentation of Cook's Clorindy, or the origin of the cakewalk is unquestionably of great historical importance. With this work (and the more elaborate and extended In Dahomey soon after) opened the doors for Black music on Broadway. Cook realized this immediately when, after the great reception on opening night, he joined the cast after midnight to rejoice in what they had done and to wait for the morning newspaper reviews. "Ï was so delirious that I drank a glass of water, thought it wine and got gloriously drunk. Negroes at last were on Broadway and here to stay. We were artists and we were going a long way. We had the world on a string tied to a runnin' red-reared wagon on a downhill pull. Nothing could stop us, and nothing would for a decade!"

His mother saw the music in a quite different light. "I've sent you all over the world to study and become a great musician and you return such a n_____!" Hers was a stance that exceeded most of those in the forthcoming Harlem Renaissance, when one looked for symphonies and operas that "elevated" the productions, tastes, and reception of the New Negro -- no more coon songs.

It was true that Cook lamented the public's expectations of the Black composer, who should provide a continuation of music that was far from sober. Had Cook complied, we might be totally unaware of his existence today. Obviously in his mind, he had elevated matters to some extent, offering an enriched harmonic and melodic vocabulary with at least a degree -- and an acceptable one -- that reflected his education at Oberlin and in Berlin. It has been commented that we might not ever see a true revival of Clorindy or In Dahomey apart from their captivating contents, that these works are too dated. If we were to look retrospectively at these milestones, that would be a valid point, but a faulty evaluation of history; it evolves progressively, not backwards. There has been, in fact, an effort to revive In Dahomey just over ten years ago, at Cleveland's Karamu House. I was present in the company of Dr. Thomas Riis, the leading authority on the entire subject area. We were delighted.
The outstanding artistic importance of Cook must not be denied, and his accomplishments acknowledged within a history so seriously socially blemished, but no longer ignored or euphemicised.
Dominique-René de Lerma

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