Cootie Williams – Doleful Joy

December 15, 2013

Inevitably, Cootie Williams is remembered chiefly for his work with Duke Ellington; after all, he spent a total of about 22 years with the band. But there was more to him than that: he made important contributions with other leaders; as a bandleader he hired several sidemen who would themselves make significant marks in the jazz world; and he moved comfortably through swing era music, bebop, post-bop mainstream, and R&B.

Cootie was born Charles Melvin Williams, in Mobile, Alabama, on 10 July 1911. As a small child, he took an early delight in music (family legend has it that too young to talk properly, he burbled ‘cootie, cootie, cootie’ when hearing a band play). He played various instruments in school bands, in particular the trombone and the tuba, but then took up the trumpet on which he was at first self-taught before taking lessons from Charles Lipskin. The young boy’s proficiency was such that he was still in his early teens when he began playing professionally. This was the mid-1920s and among the bands with which he played was that run by the family of Lester Young. Cootie continued to play in territory bands, mainly in the south, including that led by Alonzo Ross, which was fortuitous because early in 1928 this band played in New York. Aware of the opportunities in the city, almost at once Cootie chose to quit the band and in that same summer he recorded with James P. Johnson, following this with brief spells with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson. Early the following year he was hired by Duke Ellington to replace Bubber Miley.

Melodie Records

Melodie Records

 

At first, Cootie’s role in the band required him to play the so-called ‘jungle effects’ originally created by Miley, but his rich open horn sound and his distinctive plunger muted playing quickly became an important part of the palette with which Ellington worked. This, Cootie’s first spell in Ellington’s orchestra, was to last for 11 years. By the time of his last year with the band, 1940, he was one of the most distinctive musicians amidst a group of highly individualistic players. Ellington, ever alert to the qualities of his sidemen, showcased Cootie in a composition with which the trumpeter would be forever inextricably linked. This was Concerto For Cootie, recorded in 1940, which remains a jazz standard to this day although usually under the title by which it became better known after Bob Russell wrote a lyric for it: Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.

Collectables Records

Collectables Records

 

During this spell with Ellington, Cootie’s distinctive playing brought him work outside the band and he made records with other leaders, among them Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. With the latter, he appeared on sessions accompanying Billie Holiday. He was also leader of one of the small groups drawn from within the Ellington band, the Rug Cutters. When Cootie left Ellington in 1940, an event of sufficient importance in the music world to prompt Raymond Scott to compose When Cootie Left The Duke, it was to join the immensely popular Benny Goodman band, playing in the full band but mainly featured in the sextet. Although not with Goodman for long, this exposure to the big-time was such that Cootie decided to form his own big band.

Formed in 1941, and destined to last through to the decade’s end, Cootie’s band followed the swing era trend, employing several leading musicians of the genre, among them Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson. Significantly, and demonstrating Cootie’s musical open-mindedness, he also had on the band a number of the new young beboppers, notably Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, even if, most of the time, they had to limit their experimentation. That said, Cootie’s acceptance of new sounds led him to record Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight in August 1944. This was urged upon him by Bud Powell and is believed to be the first of the 1,000-plus recordings of this timeless jazz standard.

For all the band’s many qualities, Cootie was not immune to the commercial pressures that were affecting all big bands, and by the end of the decade, he was forced to cut the band down to a small group. There were other pressures, too, and as he would ruefully admit in later years, although he had been a temperate man before becoming a band leader, it was during these years that he became a serious drinker.cootie-poster For all the difficulties, however, Cootie’s band was a very good example of its kind and period; and an important aspect of it was his own playing that never lost its distinctive appeal. Despite the problems surrounding himself and the band, Cootie was ever alert to commercial trends and in particular ventured into R&B. This was in the early 1950s and he led small bands, including leading one for a long engagement at the Savoy Ballroom. He also enjoyed a hit, with (Doin’ The) Gator Tail, a number that featured the honking tenor saxophone of the number’s composer, Willis Jackson.

The late 1950s saw Cootie fitting into the post-bop mainstream with effortless ease, something that is vividly demonstrated on one of the best record dates of the time and genre. This was with a band he co-led with Rex Stewart in 1957 on a session released as The Big Challenge. This recording has seldom been absent from the catalogs, and with excellent playing from the leaders along with Coleman Hawkins, Bud Freeman, Lawrence Brown and Hank Jones, it is not hard to understand why. But despite successes such as this one, work was not easy to find under his own leadership although he did tour Europe as co-leader with Joe Newman.

Fresh Sound Records

Fresh Sound Records

In 1962, after briefly rejoining Goodman, Cootie was tempted back into the Ellington fold, an event the bandleader rewarded with several features for the trumpeter, among them New Concerto For Cootie, The Shepherd and Portrait Of Louis Armstrong. Cootie remained in the band – visually an apparently doleful presence – until Ellington’s death, staying on when the band was briefly led by Mercer Ellington before bowing out in 1978. He died on 15 September 1985, in New York City.

Throughout his years with Ellington, and on many occasions under his own name, Cootie consistently displayed a vigorous command of his instrument. Whether playing the muted colorful compositions of Ellington, or playing in the full-throated manner that reflected his admiration for Louis Armstrong, the distinctive trumpet playing of Cootie Williams remains one of the lasting joys of jazz,

As usual, the CDs illustrated above can be bought at Amazon, as can many other examples of this fine musician’s work.

 

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