Williams' own big band, which debuted at the Grand Terrace café in Chicago in February 1942, became especially popular at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City, but gradually faded from the scene.
given name Charles Melvin Williams
birth Jul. 10, 1911, Mobile, AL
death Sept. 15, 1985, New York, NY
father ran a gambling house
mother a pianist and church organist, d.1918
siblings four brothers (including twins, of whom only one lived)
wife Catherine Williams
The sound of his trumpet - with a mute or played open - was a memorable part of the Duke Ellington band during 1929 to 1940, during some of its most classic years.
He inspired Ellington to compose two numbers specifically for him, Echoes of Harlem and Concerto for Cootie, and was allowed to use other members of the Ellington band, including Duke himself, to make a series of small group recordings for Vocalion from 1937-40. Labeled as “Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters,” those discs included such titles as Diga Diga Doo, Downtown Uproar, Blue Reverie, Swing Pan Alley, and The Boys From Harlem.
Cootie Williams in his Own Words: The Ellington Era 1929-1940
“Down South I used to listen to Louis Armstrong on the radio, playing with Fletcher Henderson
from the Roseland. ‘Boy,’ I used to say to myself, ‘if I could only get to New York and hear him.’”
“A funny thing was that Duke never asked me to play like Bubber [ Miley ]. Night after night I
sat up there and nobody said a word. When Tricky [ Sam ] Nanton played, I laughed because
it was funny-sounding to me. But it dawned on me, finally. I thought, ‘This man hired me to
take Bubber’s place. And he played with the plunger-like Tricky Sam.’”
“In the beginning, you didn’t think about the money . . . The idea was to have the ability to do
something, to suggest something good for the band to play. That was the general feeling.
Everyone would pitch in to give. It was exciting, and we were young. ‘Do it like this, Duke,’
we’d say. ‘We want it this way and that.’ Everyone made suggestions; it was a family thing.”
“In Duke’s band, even in the old days, there were some guys who didn’t care. Sometimes for
weeks they wouldn’t play, just sit there not really blowing. And Duke wouldn’t say anything.
I’d be the one to scream and holler and do his work for him.”
Williams quit Ellington in November 1940 to join Benny Goodman’s band. Goodman didn’t lure him away; in fact, Ellington helped to set the whole thing up, and saw to it that Williams got more money than he had been paying him.
While with Goodman, Williams borrowed a few members of his band, namely trombonist Lou McGarity, saxophonist Les Robinson, and pianist Johnny Guarnieri, to make four sides for Okeh in May 1941, among them West End Blues.
Williams also moonlighted that December, again on Okeh, for six sides backing former Tommy Dorsey vocalist Jack Leonard. The instrumentation was somewhat unusual: four strings, four saxes, a rhythm section, and Williams' lone trumpet. On one of the songs, Madeleine, he played what was, for him, a very straight-laced solo.
His employment with Goodman was supposed to only last one year, then he intended to return to Ellington. However, Ellington encouraged him to go out on his own.
With the support and promotion of booking agent Moe Gale, Williams' big band seemed to be a welcomed move.
Shortly, the group was booked into the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. Their "jump rhythm" proved quite popular, and they were invited back several times and featured on a coast-to-coast radio hook-up from the Savoy twice weekly over the Mutual network in the spring of '43.
Though Williams was clearly the star, the band included a number of fine musicians, including some young, aspiring be-bop players.
Williams discovered Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, age 25, hiring him as alto saxophonist and, eventually, blues vocalist. Vinson's memorable numbers with the band included Cherry Red and Somebody's Got to Go.
Pianist Bud Powell, age 19, got his first big band experience with Williams in 1943-44.
Williams found Pearl Bailey, 25, and hired her as his female vocalist. On a January 6, 1944 session for the Hit label, she sang Now I Know and Tess’ Torch Song [ I Had a Man ].
Pianist Thelonious Monk, 23, worked briefly with Williams. Together they wrote what became a jazz favorite, 'Round Midnight, which the Williams band recorded on August 22, 1944 for Hit.
Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, 24, played with the orchestra in late 1944 and early
1945. Appropriately, one of the tunes they performed while broadcasting from the Savoy was titled The Boppers.
Other sidemen in Williams’ groups included, at various times, Harold “Money” Johnson, Lamar Wright (trumpets), Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Sam “The Man” Taylor (tenor saxophones), and Ken Kersey (piano).
Ella Fitzgerald was guest singer with the Williams orchestra several times in the '40s, including on a 1944 AFRS “Jubilee” show from Hollywood. She and the Ink Spots appeared as a package with Williams' band and set attendance records a couple times at the Paramount Theatre in New York City. They also performed at the Paradise Theatre in Detroit, the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the Regal in Chicago.
"The clear, true toning of the growl man's trumpet made it easy to understand why he won the Esquire magazine poll so handily," the Chicago Defender commented.
In December 1945, Williams signed a contract to appear at the Zanzibar nightclub in New York City "for a minimum of eight weeks per year for the next ten years." Zanzibar owner Joe Howard explained that, "in his two previous appearances at the nightery Williams had done so well-both artistically and financially-that he wanted to take no chances on his not being available for at least one stand per year."
When Williams' orchestra returned to the Savoy in June 1946, they played to the largest single-night audience of the year, as 4,758 patrons came through the doors.
On August 24, 1946, Look magazine sponsored an amateur jazz talent competition at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Williams and fellow trumpeter-bandleader Erskine Hawkins played in a jam session as part of the program, and audience members included Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Guy Lombardo.
Cootie Williams in his Own Words: When Cootie Left the Duke 1940-62
“But that Goodman band-I loved it. It had a beat, and there was something there that I
wanted to play with . . . I think I was happier in music that first year I was with him than I
ever was . . . The thing would just move; that’s what I enjoyed. There was never a letdown.
Soon as one guy stopped playing, here comes another right in on top. With Benny no one
could sit back-and he couldn’t sit back, either.”
“I was real interested in Pearl Bailey, and had a contract with her. If you’ve got somebody
with talent, you can do a lot of work with them. I can detect different things in a person,
what gifts they may have. But I had to fight with Pearl. She didn’t want to do this, or maybe
that. If you find someone talented, they’re all the same; you’ve got to fight with them to get
it out. Often it’s the artist who himself doesn’t know what he does best.”
“ . . . if a musician doesn’t have talent, I’m his bitter enemy while we’re working. After I get
off the stand, if we meet on other terms, we’re all right. But when we go to work-I don’t like
"I personally like be-bop and get kicks both out of playing and hearing it. Still, you can't
overlook the fact that the mass of people don't like or understand it. And art form that
appeals to a limited audience must be short lived. That is the inevitable fate of bebop."
After World War II, big changes occured in the band business.
During a brief southern tour through Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in the fall of 1947, Williams announced plans to alter his orchestra's musical policy.
"If the customers want be-bop as well as our usual swing style of music, we'll just have to give them want they want," he conceded.
Not long afterwards, economic conditions forced Williams to cut his band down to a small combo.
"You can say without fear of contradiction, it'll be a long time before I re-enter the large band field. It is just too tough a proposition at this time," he told reporters in August 1948.
A few months later, Williams once again returned to the Savoy ballroom. "For the first time in the history of the famed dance hall a band has been invited to play more than three engagements a year," it was noted. "This was the previous tops. Williams has played SIX times this year with the current stand, which was completed Thursday [ December 16, 1948 ]."
Eventually, Williams was hired as house band at the Savoy, leading a six-piece combo there from 1955-58.
They made a bunch of 45 rpm singles for RCA Victor in 1957, though the approach leaned more toward rhythm and blues.
A 1958 album, “Cootie Williams in Hi-Fi/Cootie Williams in Stereo” (RCA Victor LPM-1718/LSP-1718), spotlighted him with more traditional swing arrangements, his sole trumpet backed by such fine musicians as Billy Byers and Bobby Byrne (trombones), Al Klink, Nick Caiazza, Boomie Richman (saxophones), Lou Stein or Hank Jones (piano), Eddie Safranski (bass), and Don Lamond (drums).
After the Savoy closed in '58, Williams performed at jazz clubs and concerts in the U.S. and overseas, and his later LPs included “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” (Warwick LP2027) and “The Solid Trumpet of Cootie Williams” (Moodsville MVLP27).
In 1962, he rejoined Benny Goodman for a two-month tour beginning in late July, then went back to Duke Ellington’s orchestra, remaining until 1975, even after Ellington passed away.
But Williams wasn’t trying to re-live the past.
“I always look forward to something new,” he explained to Dance. “Before I came back with Duke this time, I told him, ‘I don’t want to play Black and Tan [ Fantasy ] and those things I did 40 [ sic ] years ago. My mind is different now.’ The public . . . doesn’t understand that when you’ve played a thing for six months, it may be finished for you.”
"Cootie, Ella And Ink Spots Capture Broadway: Set Three-Day Mark At The Paramount
Theatre," Chicago Defender, Feb. 8, 1947, p.19.
"'Cootie' On Zanzibar Menu: Trumpet King Signs Unusual Contract," Chicago Defender,
Dec. 8, 1945, p.16.
"Cootie Williams Captures Harlem," Chicago Defender, Dec. 18, 1948, p.16.
"Cootie Williams In Debut: 'Growl' Trumpeter Will Open At Grand Terrace," Chicago
Defender, Feb. 7, 1942, p.21.
"'Cootie' Williams Stars On Discs Made By Jack Leonard," Chicago Defender,
Dec. 27, 1941, p.19.
"Cootie Williams Thinks Be-Bop Just Flash On Horizon That Will Flicker," Chicago
Defender, May 1, 1948, p.9.
"Cootie Williams To Change Band Style," Chicago Defender, Aug. 16, 1947, p.10.
"Cootie Williams Tops As Maestro At Harlem Savoy," Chicago Defender,
Nov. 27, 1943, p.10.
"Cootie Williams Will Not Increase His Ork," Chicago Defender, Aug. 21, 1948, p.8.
Helen Dance, “the immutable cootie williams,” Down Beat, May 4, 1967, p.21+.
"Ink Spots And 'Cootie' Williams To The South," Chicago Defender, May 20, 1944, p.8.
"Jam Carnegie Hall To Hear 'Cootie' Battle Erskine Hawkins," Chicago Defender,
Aug. 31, 1946, p.10.
Tom Lord, The Jazz Discography (Redwood, NY: Cadence Jazz Books, 2001),
T.W. McGarry, “Cootie Williams, Jazz Trumpeter of Big Band Era, Dies,” Los Angeles
Times, Sept. 16, 1985, p.3.
J. Bradford Robinson, "Williams, Cootie," in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Second
Edition: Volume Three Nightclubs-Zwingenberger (New York, NY: Grove's
Dictionaries Inc., 2001), pp.943-944.
"Savoy Like 'Joy,' Not Name: Spot Continues As 'Home Of Happy Feet,'" Chicago
Defender, June 15, 1946, p.10.
Ted Yates, "Capture Broadway: Ink Spots, Ella And Cootie Set Paramount Mark,"
Chicago Defender, Mar. 17, 1945, p.13.
---, "Cootie Williams And Band Score At N.Y. Savoy," Chicago Defender, Apr. 3, 1943,
I would like to expand this tribute with, if possible, a new interview of someone who was important to Cootie Williams' life or career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail