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Lead Trumpet Admired By The DukeCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Willie Cook made his reputation as a top rank lead trumpet with a variety of big bands, but will be best remembered for his contributions to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He joined the band for the first time in 1951, and worked with Ellington at various times in the ensuing decades.
Although born in Louisiana, where his father worked for the Illinois Central railroad, Cook moved with his family family to East Chicago, Indiana, at the age of four, a common migration of the period. His older brother played trumpet in the school band, and was able to bring the instrument home, allowing his younger sibling a chance to practice. He began to learn violin as well, but opted for trumpet, and duly took his own place in the high school band.
He began playing professionally while still in school, and worked with local bands (including his own group) in the early-40s, before joining pianist Jay McShann in 1943. He made his recording debut with McShann, but was recruited to join the famous big band led by pianist Earl Hines that year, a relationship which lasted (with occasional interruptions) until 1948. As well as playing trumpet, he began arranging music while with Hines.
Cook cited his earliest influences as being Harry James and Charlie Spivak, and later Roy Eldridge, but new forces were having an accelerating effect in jazz in the late-40s. Although initially suspicious of the harmonic innovations of bebop, Cook joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band in 1948, following a short spell with the band which still bore the name of its late leader, Jimmy Lunceford.
The trumpeter remained with Gillespie until the band broke up in 1950, and later claimed that he learnt a great deal in that association. He took part in a tour of the south with Billie Holiday in 1950, but had grown disillusioned with the musicians financial lot, and took a job in the construction industry to support his family, until he received a call from Ellington to join the band in Detroit in 1951, where he bestablished himself as the bands lead trumpet.
Ellington considered him to be an outstanding lead, and he was much admired among his fellow musicians. His first tour of duty with Ellington lasted until 1957, and he rejoined the band on several subsequent occasions, in 1959, 1960-61, and 1968-1973. His flexibility allowed him to encompass the varied requirements and effects of Ellingtons music, and his own melodic soloing and crisp articulation became a notable feature of the bands sound.
Cook freelanced in New York through much of the 1960s when he was not with Ellington. He moved to Texas for a time after Dukes death, and retired from music until he reappeared to play with fellow former Ellingtonian Clark Terry in 1978, and also with Count Basie.
He married a Swedish woman and settled in Sweden, where he worked with a variety of Swedish bands from the early-80s, including the Gugge Hedrenius Big Blues Band and his own groups, as well as working with the late Ernie Wilkins and the Danish Radio Big Band.