Cootie Williams Biography

Charles Melvin Williams, 10 July 1911, Mobile, Alabama, USA, d. 15 September 1985, New York City, New York, USA. A self-taught trumpeter, Williams first played professionally in the mid-20s, when he was barely into his teens, appearing in the band run by the family of Lester Young. He later played in several New York bands, including those led by Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson. In 1929 he replaced Bubber Miley in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, remaining there for 11 years. During this stint he made a number of records with other leaders, notably Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson (on some of whose sessions he accompanied Billie Holiday). He also led the Rug Cutters, one of the many small groups drawn from within the Ellington band. In 1940 Williams left Ellington and was briefly with Benny Goodman before forming his own big band. In later years, asked about his drinking habits, Williams remarked that he had not been a drinker until he had his own band. Given that his band included unpredictable musicians such as Bud Powell and Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker it is easy to understand why he turned to the bottle. For all the undoubted qualities of the band, which also featured Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, and the high standard of his own playing, by the late 40s Williams was forced to cut the band down in size.

In the early 50s Williams moved into the currently popular R&B field. For the next few years he continued playing R&B, leading small bands and making record sessions - notably, a 1957 session, on which he was co-leader with Rex Stewart, by a band which boasted Coleman Hawkins, Bud Freeman, Lawrence Brown and Hank Jones within its ranks. In 1962 he rejoined Ellington, remaining in the band after the leader’s death and during its brief, post-Ducal life, under Mercer Ellington. Although Williams was brought into the 1929 Ellington band to take over the so-called ‘jungle effects’ originally created by Miley, he quickly became an outstanding soloist in his own right. His full, rich tone and powerful style was showcased by Ellington on ‘Concerto For Cootie (Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me)’, recorded in 1940. Throughout his years with Ellington, and on many occasions under his own name, Williams readily displayed the command and vigour of his distinctive playing.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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