Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), a native Washingtonian, was an internationally renowned violinist and composer. He studied violin at Oberlin College before returning to Washington, where his first recital was sponsored by Frederick Douglass. He performed at Carnegie Hall and studied at the National Conservatory of Music. Convinced that he would be unable to pursue classical composition, he instead wrote musical comedies. In 1889 Cook produced and wrote the music for Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, the first musical comedy written, directed, and performed entirely by African-American artists. Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote the words. In the 1910s he organized the New York Syncopated Orchestra, which toured the United States and Europe playing classical music and introducing audiences to American jazz. During the 1920s Cook was an important mentor to Duke Ellington.

Cook's son, Mercer Cook (1903-1987), taught Romance languages at Howard University. In the early 1960s Mercer served as ambassador to the Republic of Niger and special envoy to Senegal and Gambia. Cook's father, John Hartwell Cook, graduated from the Howard University Law School in 1871 and was one of the first black lawyers to practice in Washington. He served as chief clerk of the Freedmen's Bureau from 1867 until 1872 and as professor and dean of the Howard University Law School from 1876 until 1878.

Will Marion Cook and his father are both buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. Howard University Building 16 now occupies the site of the Cook family rowhouse.


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