Thursday, December 27, 2012

Will Accooe (1874-1904) Composed 'Black Patti Waltzes' (6:16) on New World Records CD 'Black Manhattan, Vol. 2' by Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

Track 9 of the New World Records release Black Manhattan, Volume 2 consists of Will Accooe's Black Patti Waltzes (6:16) performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, led by Rick Benjamin, Director.  The waltzes are stately yet sentimental, and form a cohesive composition.  They are dedicated to Sissieretta Jones, the renowned soprano nicknamed the "Black Patti."

New World Records
Today the unusual name “Will Accooe” is recognized only by a handful of specialists in historic African-American music. But at the end of the nineteenth century on into the dawn of the twentieth, Accooe was a well-known figure of the black theatrical and musical worlds. In his tragically short career, Accooe was a leading conductor of black stage productions, and his compositions inspired widespread predictions that he would rise to become “the greatest colored composer in America.”

Willis J. Accooe was born in Winchester, Virginia in 1874. (His name has been incorrectly listed as “William” in several references.) He was the son of a noted Methodist minister, John Harris Accooe (1852–1920) and his wife Anna (1852–1920). Due to the itinerant nature of his father’s calling, young Willis did not have much in the way of formal schooling. But his intense creativity and intelligence seem to have more than compensated for any lack of conventional instruction. The lad was also very musical: at the age of seven he built an imaginary piano out of a shoe-box and began writing out his own “compositions” while sitting at it.

The Rev. Accooe’s ministries kept his family on the move, but in time provided Willis with access to something not available to every African-American family of that era—real pianos and organs. The boy learned to play them, gleaning what he could from church musicians he encountered along the way. Soon he became the organist at the historic Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He also really began to compose.

Accooe continued on this self-made path until the early 1890s, when he encountered Carl Mindt (1858–1902), the founder and director of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Conservatory of Music. The gifted black teenager deeply impressed Prof. Mindt, who granted the young church organist a scholarship to the Conservatory. There, Accooe filled in the gaps of his musical knowledge and
honed his keyboard technique. And an ambition formed: he dreamed of becoming an organist in one of New York City’s large churches. However, in this Accooe was to be disappointed; after playing several auditions in that city, no positions were offered. With the need to earn a living, Accooe abruptly abandoned church music and “. . . went into the theatrical business.”

Because of his race, Will Accooe’s job opportunities were restricted to black companies. He soon found employment as pianist with a “Jubilee” ensemble—Puggsley’s Tennessee Warblers. The Warblers operated from Nashville, but the major black companies were headquartered in New York, the capital of the mightily expanding American entertainment industry. In 1896 Accooe relocated there to become the music director for John W. Isham’s Octoroons company, a
successful and innovative touring troupe which specialized in a modernized style of minstrel show. It was also in that year that his compositions first began to appear in print. One of these was the “Black Patti Waltzes,” (track 9) dedicated to African-American soprano Sissieretta  Jones (c. 1868–1933, the “Black Patti”).

After a brief but triumphant appearance as organ soloist at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Will Accooe returned to the grueling life of a touring “theatrical.” 
By 1900 Accooes’s musical compositions were beginning to break other racial barriers. His songs were heard on Broadway as additions to the scores of several successful white productions, including The Casino Girl (1901) and The Liberty Belles (1901). And Accooe had also been accepted as a full-fledged member of America’s black musical theater elite; he worked with the Johnson
brothers on The Belle of Bridgeport (1900), and with Will Marion Cook and James Weldon Johnson on the operetta Cannibal King (1901; not produced).
1900 was also the year that Williams & Walker—the nation’s leading black stage personalities andproducers—engaged Accooe as their musical director. This was the most important post of his career. The young conductor led the company in the musical Sons of Ham (1900) and did preliminarily work with them on In Dahomey (1902/03). Accooe’s performance was by all accounts exceptional, but he was an eccentric, and his foibles eventually caused the W&W company to
begin quietly searching for his replacement.

During In Dahomey’s tryout period James J. Vaughan was given charge of the production, and Accooe was demoted to the “Number 2” road company of Sons of Ham. There was no publicly announced breakup, but in April 1903 the Indianapolis Freeman reported that Accooe was composing a new, original “comic opera”—The Volunteers—for another black comedy team. The composer finished this but fell seriously ill in the fall of 1903; production halted. Tragically, this unspecified illness ended Willis Accooe’s life on April 26, 1904, just weeks after his thirtieth birthday. The New York Times reported that “feeling that his end was near,” the musician wrote his own funeral oration which his father, the Rev. Accooe, sorrowfully delivered. Willis Accooe’s death was a considerable blow to his community. The noted black critic Sylvester Russell penned an affecting tribute in the Indianapolis Freeman: “. . . in justice to his ability I may
well say that as a composer he gave less service and more promise in his limited amount of work than any composer of his race. . . . If he had lived, he would have been greater than Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson and others less known than they. He might have become the greatest colored composer in America.”

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