Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cootie Williams: Love At First Note

The Trumpet Giant in 1966

When recently a friend asked me if I be compelled to pick one, and only one, jazz musician to spend rest of my life with his music, I answered him instantly and:"Cootie Williams!"

My story with Cootie is more than 'a jazz fan listening to a giant’s sound.' It’s a lively dialogue. Cootie talks to me with his growling sound and his plunger. He philosophizes things and explains universe in notes and keys. He measures the world in his musical scales.
First time I saw him in a video of Duke Ellington orchestra from the late 1960s. I was 16 or 17 back then and I fell in love with Cootie's trumpet playing and his theatrical voodoo-like acts on stage. It was “love at first note” and the beginning of my long obsession with his music and also the beginning of Cootimania.


Charles Melvin Williams joined duke back in 1929 and immediately became one of the prominent featured soloists alongside of Bigard, Carney and Hodges. Sometime around 1940 he left the band and this gave a cat like Raymond Scott to write a tune by the name of “when cootie left duke”. This was the impact of cootie’s style and personality as far as the horn was concerned. He worked for a year with the Benny Goodman band and then decided to establish his own big band unit. This was financially a fluff but musically it was a band that apart from having the master himself had name trumpeters like Emmett Perry who worked with Dizz and George Treadwell and Eddie Vinson and Sam Taylor. All in all it was a marvelous band and laterwards introduced people like Bud Powell and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis to the jazz world. Cootie’s talent-scouting went further with the experimental work with the compositions of a cat like Monk, who was utterly unknown back in the mid-forties. Downbeat writer, Frank Stacy, wrote back in February 1944 about “the astounding trumpet section” and the solo work of the Sam “the man” Taylor. Cootie was crowned as the king of them all trumpet players of the time with “the most solid tone, phrasing, unique ideas and what not”. There’s the very famous number, written by Duke for Cootie back in 1936, that was originally carrying the name of “concerto for cootie”. At the end of 1946 it had become a matter of financial burden for master Williams to keep on going with the idea of having a band of his own. He was forced to cut it to a combo format. He almost disappeared in coming years from the actual jazz scene to return to Ellington orchestra around early sixties. God bless the king wherever he may be now.


There are only 6 or 7 albums, available under Cootie's own name, but of course there are many by focusing on Ellington and Benny Goodman orchestras. One of the best Cootie recordings - that fortunately is his most accessible - is a live Paris date, 1959, paired in a CD with a top Joe Newman session from 1956 and issued under the title: Jazz at Midnight.

--Ehsan Khoshbakht

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