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The Edison Files: The Orpheus Male Chorus

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. No one knows for sure who the very first recording artist was. Here is a look at an early recording artist I have in my collection.

Orpheus Male Chorus. One of the most important figures in pre-jazz African-American music, Will Marion Cook is also one of its better known personalities. As a composer, conductor, performer, teacher, and producer, he had his hand in nearly every aspect of the black music of his time and worked with nearly every other important musician in his fields. Uncompromising and difficult to work with, he still commanded respect from his peers for his abilities and accomplishments. In 1881 he was sent to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to live with his grandfather where he heard black folk music for the first time. However, Cook's early career remained focused on classical music and violin performance, which he began at age 13. When he was 15, Cook studied violin at Oberlin College. Cook was sent to Europe to study and as a result, he studied with Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and associate of Brahms. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1890, however, his classical career went nowhere. Since he was unable to find employment at any musical institution, he began to teach music privately. Among his students was Clarence Cameron White, who later became famous as a violinist and composer. Cook's earliest composition was Scenes from the Opera of Uncle Tom's Cabin--intended for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, but which was not performed. Cook turned to popular music as his classical career was not successful. He began writing songs. Cook was well represented on disc and cylinder. In 1914, he conducted a group, the Afro-American Folk Song Singers, in a Columbia recording of Cook’s black folk-anthem entitled, “Swing Along,” which was sung by the Orpheus Male Chorus on Edison. Cook remained an important figure in the new century. He wrote and published many songs, was prominent as a conductor and music director. A historic concert on May 2, 1912, at Carnegie Hall featured his 150-voice chorus in a performance of Swing Along! Cook died of cancer in New York in 1944. As mentor and teacher, Cook influenced a generation of young African-American musicians, including jazz composer and performer Duke Ellington, who studied with Cook.

To listen to recordings by the Orpheus Male Chorus, or other early recording stars, visit the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.


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