Jazz trumpeter Charles M. (Cootie) Williams, considered one of the greatest of all time, died Saturday night at his home on New York’s Long Island. He was 77.
Williams spent more than 24 years, in three periods spanning 1929 to 1980, with the Duke Ellington Band. His death left only one member of the legendary Ellington big band of the 1930s still alive, trombonist Lawrence Brown of Los Angeles, who retired from music some years ago.
An Esquire magazine panel of judges ranked Williams as the best all-around jazz trumpet player in the world in 1944 and 1946, ahead of Louis Armstrong. In 1945, he was runner-up to Armstrong.
Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather described Williams as “one of the most important and influential trumpet players in jazz history,” a master of both the “growling” trumpet style of Bubber Miley and the pure playing style of Armstrong.
Born in Mobile, Ala., Williams made his professional debut with the Eagle Eye Shields Band in Florida in 1925, at the age of 17. By 1928, he was in New York, then in the throes of the Jazz Age, playing for Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson.
He joined Ellington’s band, replacing Miley, in 1929. Ellington wrote two numbers for Williams, “Echoes of Harlem” and “Concerto for Cootie,” which Feather said were the first jazz works composed specifically to showcase the talent of an individual musician.
Williams left Ellington in 1940 to join the Benny Goodman band, which inspired pianist Raymond Scott’s jazz tune “When Cootie Left the Duke.” After a year with Goodman, he left to form his own big band, which was moderately successful until the late 1940s.
In the 1950s, the band shrank to a combo. For a while he had a rhythm and blues band, and by the late ‘50s he was playing in a quartet in clubs in New York and Europe.
In 1962, he rejoined the Ellington band, remaining until 1975 and playing under Ellington’s son, Mercer, who took over the band after his father died in 1970. He returned for a brief third stint with the band about five years ago.
Williams’ death was announced by Ellington, who said Williams had been under dialysis treatment for kidney problems in recent years. Funeral plans were incomplete.