Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Williams, Cootie (Charles Melvin)

No one in the forties could coax a trumpet like Cootie Williams, or produce such wild effects, from rooster squawks to human-like emotions in comedic variations. Yet today, few realize the extent to which his horn skills soared beyond these tricks to shape the sound of Swing.

Charles Melvin Williams was born in Mobile, Alabama on July 24, 1910. The son of a church organist and a father who ran a gambling house, Williams attended his first band concert when he was three years old. On the way home from the park, his parents asked what he had heard: “Cootie, cootie, cootie” was his reply.

Influenced by his musical mother, Cootie started playing trombone in his school’s marching band. He soon switched to tuba, as his arms were still too short for the trombone slide. After hearing Cootie play “Twelfth Street Rag” on a borrowed horn, his band teacher switched him to trumpet when he was eight years old.

That same year, Cootie’s mother died giving birth to twins. Afterward, his father insisted Cootie continue with music and hired a local trumpet teacher, Charles Lipskin who had once played with New Orleans Excelsior Jazz Band. The relationship lasted seven more years, with Cootie delivering clothes for Lipskin’s cleaning and pressing shop in exchange for lessons.

At fourteen, Williams spent a summer in the family band of Willis Handy Young, playing alongside tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who was a year older. By sixteen, he had played in numerous bands around Mobile, and was constantly exposed to New Orleans bands in town for one-nighter’s, hearing performers like trumpeter Kid Punch and clarinetist Edmund Hall. Soon after William’s father allowed him to travel with Hall to join up with a band in Jacksonville, Florida.

A year later, Hall and Williams ended up with Alonzo Ross, leader of a Florida territory band called the Ross Deluxe Syncopators. Listening to one of the band’s recordings, the owner of Brooklyn’s renowned Rosemount Ballroom heard the band and invited them to perform.

In 1928, after a grueling trip by steamship from Savannah, Georgia, Cootie Williams arrived in New York City. Growing up he had listened intensely to Louis Armstrong, who often performed at the Rosemount. Williams saw a lot of Louis, and was soon working with two of the Harlem’s most popular bandleaders: pianist Fletcher Henderson and drummer Charlie “Chick” Webb.

At this time, the bands led by Henderson and Webb were upping each other’s ante, in a race to round out the rhythms of jazz to make them more danceable. Working alongside sidemen saxophonists Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins suddenly put Cootie Williams’ deep driving sound at the cutting edge of Jazz.

Williams’ technique rocketed his first year in New York. Obsessed with the emerging sound of Swing, Henderson’s band had upped the ante in musical innovation and technique. For Williams success meant digging back to his roots, his years of disciplined lessons with Liskin, which had given Cootie a better range of music reading skills and the ability to play in harder keys.

In 1929, Duke Ellington asked Cootie to take Bubber Miley’s chair in his orchestra. Over the next ten years Williams matured into his own style, aided by Ellington’s willingness to feature Cootie’s trumpet in countless solos under the Cotton Club’s spotlight.

His horn can be heard in several pivotal Ellington recordings, including “Caravan” and “Echoes of Harlem.” But “Concerto for Cootie,” (also known as “Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me”) stands out for the total revelation of Williams’ diverse styles and moods, from steamy Harmon mute to growling plunger to brassy cascading hi notes. This was a remarkable departure for a band in the 1930’s honoring a mere sideman’s virtuosity, yet Cootie’s flair inspired both the audience and the band.

In his decade with the Duke, Williams also lead sessions with vibraphone master Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday. But Cootie became restless after he performed as a featured guest at Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938. In an interview with author Stanley Dance, Cootie spoke of his love for the beat of Benny Goodman’s band, and of his admiration for Goodman as a musician.

Williams received hundreds of hate mail letters after jumping to Goodman’s band on November 6, 1940. While he had the Duke’s blessing to cash in on his fame and join the Goodman band, 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.”

Williams stayed one year with the Goodman Sextet before deciding to become a bandleader in his own right. In the 1940s, the Cootie Williams Band featured players such as pianist Bud Powell, tenorman Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, alto saxophonist/singer Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, and the volatile alto king, Charlie Parker. After his experience with Parker, Williams had claimed that he never drank before having his own band. 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, when Monk did a brief stint on piano with the band.

By 1948, Williams had cut the numbers of his band down to a sextet. The same year he had an R & B hit called “Gator,” a success that owed much to Willis Jackson's rackety tenor. The sextet worked steadily for seven years at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, as Cootie’s fame waned. He drifted through the late 1950s and early 1960s, at one point becoming a musical director for ballad singer Belle Barth.

William’s resurfaced in 1962, first sitting on in for one last gig with Benny Goodman. Then, after a 22-year absence, Cootie Williams rejoined the Duke Ellington Orchestra and remained a fixture well past the Duke's death in 1974. Some said Cootie’s chops were shot by then. Certainly his solos had lost their edge and bravado.

Cootie Williams retired from the Ellington Orchestra in 1978. He died in New York City on September 15, 1985.

Cootie is remembered as a master of the plunger mute. Yet he was far more than a “trick” trumpeter: blessed with a melodic gift that rivalled Louis Armstrong’s and an unusual depth of musical skill, the man with the slouched horn advanced the trumpet from the New Orleans sound into Big Band Swing and beyond.

Selected Discography

Cootie Williams: His Best Recordings 1930 –1943 (1996 Best of Jazz)

Duke Ellington’s Trumpeters (1937 Black & Blue)

The Duke’s Men: The Small Groups, Volume One (1938 Columbia)

The Duke’s Men: The Small Groups, Volume Two (1939 Columbia)

The Duke: The Columbia Years 1927-1962 (1956 Savoy)

Cootie & Rex – The Big Challenge (1957 Fresh Sound Records)

Cootie Williams in Hi Fi (1958 RCA Victor)

Contributor: Dave Krikorian