J. Lawrence Cook is a historic name in ragtime and other piano styles from the early 20th century. His name shows up as an arranger and sometimes composer on stacks of sheet music from this period, he wrote several of the best analytical studies of ragtime, and, most importantly, he turned out a series of piano rolls that, according to some documentation, number in the tens of thousands. An important aspect of Cook's job was to figure out the exact recipe of pianists such as Fats Waller or Jelly Roll Morton, players whose virtuoso extemporization left many other arrangers scratching their heads, if not banging them against the piano bench. Existing transcriptions of performances by Morton and Waller are quite often done by Cook, but the latter man also had a distinctly personal side to his work, evidenced by an entry in the unfinished A Survey of Jazz Transitions by Joe Davis which demonstrates J. Lawrence Cook's original interpretation of the tune "Christopher Columbus" before going on to demonstrate how Waller might have played it.
Cook was an orphan before he was four years old; luckily, he was raised by relatives who introduced him to music early on. He attended Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, an Augusta, GA, boarding school founded by noted African-American educator Lucy Craft Laney. By 1919, Cook had finished his college prepatory courses as well as a good deal of piano study, and was developing an interest in the mechanized player-piano technology, including instruments such as the Nickelodeon. In his early twenties he saved enough funds to buy a machine known as a perforator, which did just what it sounded like it would do -- make little holes in a roll of paper in conjunction with the musical content of a piano solo. Ragtime master Eubie Blake encouraged Cook to head to New York City, the heart of the piano-roll physical empire. It was good advice; Cook went right to work for piano-roll companies such as Aeolian and U.S. Music Roll. The Q.R.S Music Roll Co. took him on in the spring of 1923 as part of a race-recording catalog that also included James P. Johnson, Waller, and Clarence "Jelly" Johnson. During this period, Cook underwent an exhaustive study of different kinds of popular music, since he was basically required to turn anything he was handed into a groovy piano roll.
He arranged a huge number of such rolls in the '20s, often designed to feature new types of equipment such as the Melville Clark recording piano. Both piano-roll and sheet-music sales faltered badly during the Depression, though. In the '30s, Cook was still creating piano rolls, but had to also work for the post office to make ends meet. From the heyday of piano-roll popularity, Cook continued his devotion to this art form from the basement of his home in the Bronx, producing small quantities of piano rolls designed for collectors. Often these were released under pseudonyms including Eubie Jones, Cal Welch, Tom Blake, Walter Redding, "Pep" Doyle, and Sid Laney. While some of these names are obviously sound-alike cops of famous ragtime players, others had more obscure origins. Sid Laney, for instance, combined a reference to the company's factory in Sydney, Australia, with a tribute to Cook's school headmaster, Laney.
Cook did a great deal of interesting work in the '40s and '50s, continuing to transcribe popular keyboard tinklers of the time such as Erroll Garner, Frankie Carle, Art Tatum, and Bob Zurke, as well as the ongoing obsession with material created by Waller. Cook was a master at making the machine sound like a normal piano played by a human, often by carefully avoiding certain parts of the machine's tonal palette. His sense of orchestration and harmony became increasingly complicated as the years went on, in a kind of reverse synchronicity to music styles, which seemed like they were becoming simpler and more monochromatic. The hi-fi era provided him some unique recording opportunities, as the player piano became the subject of quickie vinyl exploitation -- just like the bongos, the banjo, and anything else that could be hauled out of the back of a music store. Piano Rock 'n' Roll was released by the Mercury label in 1959, matching piano rolls created by Cook with accompaniment from session hotshots such as Milt Hinton, Tony Mottola, George Duvivier, and Osie Johnson.