The musical activities of composer, conductor and instrumentalist Will Marion Cook began even prior to the oncome of the 20th century. The son of the first Afro-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., Cook studied classical music at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and with both Josef Joachim and Anton Dvorak in Europe. He was sure that nobody would take him seriously in either the American or European academic world due to his race, so he began utilizing material from traditional black folklore and music for his own works. He wrote a great deal of material for stage presentations featuring star black comic Bert Williams, but the greatest of Cook's early accomplishments was the 1889 Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk, the first musical comedy to be written, directed, and performed entirely by blacks.
Cook subsequently wrote a series of popular musicals in this style including both Dahomey and Abyssinia. He helmed the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a large ensemble presenting both ragtime and concert music. Cook could also write in the short form, creating ditties closely associated with singing and mugging black faces, whether the color was natural or painted on. Works coming out of this Cook's song kitchen after 1910 include both "I'm Coming, Virginia" and "Mammy". His orchestra's final tour was in 1919 and featured soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. Cook then began freelancing with various New York publishers and was influential in the early work of Duke Ellington. His wife was Abbie Mitchell Cook, a soprano vocalist whose career began in his early shows. Their son Mercer Cook was the American ambassador to Nigeria and Senegal.