Question by disconnect1: Can Someone tell me all they know about Charles Melvin (Cootie Williams)?
Where when and with whom was his musical training/education? Who was his key influence, who was it who influenced him? What were some of the key elements that made this person an innovator of jazz? Tell me about when he got his break or a great story about him!
Answer by LAlawMedMBA
Cootie Williams’ earliest influence was his musical mother, who encouraged him to take up the tuba and play in the school band. When his mother died, his father hired a local trumpet teacher, Charles Lipskin, a major influence who once played with New Orleans Excelsior Jazz Band.
At the age of fourteen, Williams spent a summer in the family band of Willis Handy Young, playing alongside the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young. By sixteen, he had played in numerous bands around his native Mobile, Alabama, and was constantly exposed to New Orleans bands in town for one-nighter’s, particularly trumpeter Kid Punch and clarinetist Edmund Hall. He went with Hall to Jacksonville, Florida, and the two ended up with Alonzo Ross, leader of a Florida territory band called the Ross Deluxe Syncopators that played at the Rosemount Ballroom. There he saw a lot of Louis Armstrong, who was a second major influence.
In 1928, Williams traveled by steamship from Savannah, Georgia to New York City. He was soon working with two of Harlem’s most popular bandleaders: pianist Fletcher Henderson and drummer Charlie “Chick” Webb. Playing for both of these extraordinary bands put him at the cutting edge of jazz, and was his “big break.”
His second major career advancement occurred in 1929, when he replaced Bubber Miley in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He matured there through the 1930s, leading sessions with Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday.
When he performed as a featured guest at Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938, he was so impressed by Goodman that he jumped to Goodman’s band on November 6, 1940. After a year with Benny, Williams formed his own band. The Cootie Williams Band featured players such as pianist Bud Powell, tenorman Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, alto saxophonist/singer Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and the alto king, Charlie Parker. The band peaked during World War II, traveling from coast to coast, and having several hits, including “Round Midnight,” which Williams co-authored with Thelonious Monk. From 1948 to 1955, the Cootie Williams Sextet had a steady gig at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, but his popularity waned. In 1962, he rejoined Benny Goodman’s Band briefly, then returned to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he stayed until 1978, well past Ellington’s 1974 death.
Williams’ key innovative elements were: (1) His renowned deep driving sound, a growling “jungle” trumpet playing style (in the tradition of Bubber Miley and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton); (2) his use of the plunger mute, which reputedly inspired Wynton Marsalis; (3) his pivotal recording, “Concerto for Cootie,” (also known as “Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me”), because of its revelation of diverse styles and moods, from steamy Harmon mute to growling plunger to brassy cascading high notes; (4) his merging of the New Orleans Dixieland sound into Big Band Swing and beyond; and (5) early fusion of jazz with R&B in a 1948 hit called “Gator,” which owed much of its success to the rackety tenor sax of sideman Willis Jackson.
Great Story #1: Williams received hundreds of hate mail letters after jumping to Goodman’s band. While he had the Duke’s blessing to cash in on his fame, many jazz enthusiasts viewed his decision as little less than treason. The controversy even inspired bandleader and composer Raymond Scott to write a hit tune, “When Cootie Left The Duke.”
Great Story #2: His experience with the volatile Bird (Charlie Parker) was such a culture shock that Williams, a lifelong teetotaler, began drinking.
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