Ragtime · Blues · Hot Piano
J. Lawrence Cook

Boogie Woogie, Blues and Barrelhouse - Piano Handbook - click to enlarge J. Lawrence Cook - click to view enlarged photograph George M! Player Piano Book - click to enlarge

An Autobiography of the Early Years 1899 — 1922
The International Musician : Professional Piano Pointers
Photographs of J. Lawrence Cook in 1949 by Duncan Schiedt
Memories of J. Lawrence Cook by his granddaughter, Lisa
Tribute to J. Lawrence Cook by Bob Berkman of QRS Music Rolls
Memories of J. Lawrence Cook at the U.S. Post Office by Tony Romano
J. Lawrence Cook on Jelly Roll Morton by Butch Thompson
J. Lawrence Cook and Max Kortlander : “You Asked For It” TV Show
J. Lawrence Cook : 1972 AMICA International Convention Speech
Max Kortlander : King of the Player Piano by Lee Barnett
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Recommended Listening  ·  References  ·  Kudos

The Old Piano Roll Blues

I first became aware of J. Lawrence Cook in the early 1950s when I saw his name in Alan Lomax’s book Mister Jelly Roll. Lawrence had transcribed a number of Jelly Roll Morton’s performances for Roy J. Carew, owner of the Tempo-Music Publishing Company, which was run from Carew’s home at 818 Quintana Place, N.W., Washington 11, D.C.

It came as a complete surprise, when years later, I saw his name in a 1972 QRS Music Roll catalogue. After looking through the vast list of music rolls that were issued under his name, I decided to try and contact him personally so that I could discover more about his remarkable music career.

Jean Lawrence Cook was born in Athens, Tennessee on 14th July 1899. He was orphaned before his fourth birthday and raised by relatives who introduced him to music.  He went on to become the most famous name in the history of the music roll industry.

Prof. Alan Wallace located the 1900 U.S. Census for Athens, Tennessee, dated 5th June 1900, and listed are details for Jacob L. Cook, his wife Zella, daughter Amelia and son Lawrence. The Census also shows that Jacob L. Cook was a preacher.

On a visit to Athens, Alan Wallace went down Cook Drive (off Church Street) and came across a small City Park where the “J. L. Cook High School” once stood. A sign has been erected in the park in memory of Jacob L. Cook, which reads:

J. L. COOK Memorial Park
City of Athens Parks and Recreation

In 1914 Lawrence entered Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, a boarding school, in the Tenth Grade. The school was then located at 1329 Gwinnett Street, Augusta, Georgia, and was founded in 1883 by the noted Afro-American educator Lucy Craft Laney.

Haines Normal and Industrial Institute
1329 Gwinnett Street, Augusta, Georgia

Although the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute no longer exists, another educational complex, the Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School, now occupies the site at Laney Walker Boulevard (formerly Gwinnett Street).

After leaving Augusta he travelled to Chicago. His first job was as a car washer on the midnight shift in a garage. He was fired on the third night. He thought his co-workers believed he did not fit in, and they gave a bad report about him. His second job was unloading cars at the International Harvester Company. At the same time, he held another job working a few hours in the evening as a waiter. He tried for a better job in a large drugstore as a photographer’s helper but was refused because of his colour.

J. Lawrence Cook registered for the WWI Draft on 12th September 1918. He gave his permanent home address as 6223 Loomis Blvd. Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. This was the home of his uncle Herman. On the draft card, shown below, he gave his present occupation as “Candy Maker” and his employer’s name and place of employment as the Novelty Candy Co., 212 E. Austin Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois.


Click to enlarge front of WWI Draft Registration Card                             Click to enlarge back of WWI Draft Registration Card

Jean Lawrence Cook

WWI Draft Registration Card
12th September 1918

My first experience of J. Lawrence Cook’s work came when I acquired my first player piano many years ago. Included in the purchase were two “Fats” Waller QRS rolls, which greatly impressed me — so much so that they were very quickly reduced to shreds with constant playing. What I did not know at the time was that Cook had edited all of Waller’s QRS output. Having collected all the available Waller rolls, I am now firmly of the opinion that Cook’s contribution to them went much further than a simple editing job — there is at least one documented instance of “Fats” starting a roll but failing to turn up to finish it, so Cook had to complete the job. [FW]

Cook was a musical chameleon — he could produce convincing keyboard impressions of Art Tatum, “Fats” Waller, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner and several other leading pianists of the day. However, a major part of his QRS career was spent producing arrangements of commercial pop songs, as required for the catalogue of a commercial roll producer, and it is to Cook’s credit that his unique skill injected musicality into otherwise unexceptional material.

Some of the hot jazz rolls, which appeared under his own name, particularly those released during the 1940s, are masterpieces of swing piano playing. The arrangements are superb, clearly the product of a very fertile imagination, without doubt the work of somebody with a complete understanding of the idiom. He was far and away the most prolific and successful roll artist the world has ever known — yet he was just a part-timer (both Mike Montgomery and Bob Billings have told me that Cook held down a night job with the U.S. Post Office).
[JF 1]

© March 2002 John Farrell

He graduated from college preparatory and piano courses toward the end of 1919.  Sometime around his twentieth birthday he saw an advert in the music magazine Etude about a Leabarjan music roll perforator. After completing school, he took up work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for about a year and managed to save enough money to purchase a Style #5 Leabarjan perforator for $50.00.

John C. Lease, the inventor of the perforator, and Carl Bartels and Franz Janzen formed the Leabarjan Manufacturing Co., 521 Hanover Street, Hamilton, Ohio in 1911. The Leabarjan perforator was launched by using, as its trade mark, the three initial letters of each of the partners surnames. One of the partners, John Lease, saw the perforator as a valuable musical educational tool and a limited number of schools were lucky enough own one.

J. Lawrence Cook arrived in New York about March 1920 hoping to persuade the roll companies to take him on board. He was advised by Eubie Blake that New York was the only place to make the big time in the music business. He placed a number of adverts in the press in an attempt to attract customers. Several of these very early adverts can be seen below.

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following advert from the Dramatic Mirror and Theatre World, dated Saturday, 19th March 1921, Classified—503, column 3.

Dramatic Mirror and Theatre World

song writers


Demonstrate your compositions the new way and get best results. I make the rolls. Write at once. J. LAWRENCE COOK, 2400 7th Ave., New York t.f.

Note: J. Lawrence Cook placed this same advert during March, April, May and June 1921. Songwriter Perry Bradford also regularly placed adverts in the Dramatic Mirror and Theatre World.

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following advert from The Billboard, dated Saturday, 21st May 1921, page 41, columns 2—3.

The Billboard

“I Don’t See Why in the World You Treat Me This Way”
The newest and best “Blues” number on the market.  By J. Lawrence Cook and
Morris L. Hunter.    Published by

J. L. COOK MUSIC PUBLISHING CO.,  108 W. 131st St., New York City

Possibly his first free-lance commercial assignment was for the “Bradford Song Roll Company.” Songwriter Perry Bradford, an associate of Jelly Roll Morton, ran the company, which was located at 1547 Broadway, New York. A monthly bulletin for June 1921, featuring 5 hits of the famous blues singer Mamie Smith, was published in The Chicago Defender, dated Saturday, 4th June 1921, page 7, column 6. [AW 1]

The music rolls, each costing $1.00 and played by J. Lawrence Cook are, #202 If You Don’t Want Me Blues; #203 Jazzbo Ball; #204 U Need Some Lovin’ Blues; #205 Memories of You, Mammy and #206 Lovin’ Sam from Alabam. The advert also appeared in the New York Age, dated Saturday, 11th June 1921, and was reproduced in an article by Mike Montgomery in the AMICA Bulletin, dated April 1980. [BB 2]

Lawrence’s next free-lance assignments, before joining QRS, were for the Aeolian, Republic and U.S. Music Roll companies. The QRS Music Roll Company employed him on 1st May 1923. Together with race artists like James P. Johnson, Thomas Waller, Lemuel Fowler, Clarence Williams, Clarence Johnson and Luckeyth Roberts, he joined the QRS race recording blues department, and in order to gain as much experience as possible, he enrolled for a five-year course in harmony and counterpoint. He studied all the different styles of music ranging from ragtime, blues, classical and popular ballads.

 played by Eubie Jones

I began my search for J. Lawrence Cook by first writing to QRS at their Buffalo, New York headquarters enquiring of his present whereabouts. I received a swift reply from Ramsi P. Tick the President of QRS, who promised to forward any letters on to Lawrence at his home at 57, Esplanade, Mount Vernon, N.Y.

About a month after I wrote to Lawrence, I received the first of many letters from him. The exchange of correspondence between us continued right up until the time of his death.

I decided to keep my letters as brief as possible, so that any questions put to him might receive a direct answer. I find that if you burden musicians with an excessive amount of probing questions and badger them for detailed references to past events, they will simply take the easy way out and give answers that they believe you would like to hear. I explained in my very first letter that I had an interest in player pianos and music rolls and would like to obtain a background history of his career, beginning with how he managed to get started in the music roll industry, and how he was enjoying his retirement. I received the following reply:


JLC Letterhead

Memo To: Mr. Michael Meddings
Date 9/25/73
From: J. Lawrence Cook

Subject: Reply to your nice letter of 9/9/73 to Q.R.S.

Dear Mr. Reddings, (sic)

Thanks for yours of above date. Eubie Blake is a long time friend of mine (since 1920). We’re still in touch. He’s always been an inspiration to me.

About two years have now passed since I semi-retired from Aeolion Rolls.  Ramsi had promised me an occasional assignment when I retired, but nothing has happened as yet in this regard. Maybe if more people like you would keep “prodding” him, he would once again start having me do some masters for him. Don’t get me wrong, though, we remain good friends.

I’m out of photos at the moment, but hope this one from a newspaper may serve as a substitute.


In my next letter to Lawrence I asked him just how many music rolls he had arranged during his career and how he compared the arrangements of today with the great numbers of the past. I also wanted to know if he could help me obtain some sheet music arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton. This is the reply I received from him:


JLC Letterhead

Memo To: Mr. Michael Meddings
Date 10/6/73
From: J. Lawrence Cook

Dear Friend Michael,

Yours under date of 9/29/73 received and read with pleasure.

Here’s one thing that we all must keep in mind: It has been estimated that I have made something between 10,000 and 20,000 piano roll masters in my lifetime. Well, you, I, Ramsi and I all know that there just haven’t been that many Ragtime numbers, no matter how many people consider them as their favorites.

Interest in the result of all my efforts has survived through all these years only because I have worked very hard to please everyone who liked various styles of musical expression from Nursery Rhymes to Concertos.

(over, please)


— 2 —

I think that Ramsi’s mistake may be with paying $200.00 per person to “name artists.” This might be OK but for the fact that he has no editing technicians who are capable of converting these live recordings into acceptable piano roll interpretations. The player piano has a characteristic all it’s own.

I would suggest that you contact Lewis Pub. Co. direct, but I doubt if they are still in business.

And last, but not least, I have met, and known personally, most of the “greats.” Thank God, for knowing them has been a big help to me.

Regards to you and all of yours from me and all of mine.


During the 1920s, while he was working at QRS, Lawrence arranged a huge number of music rolls that were recorded by named artists on the Melville Clark recording piano. He continued to do this until recording operations were suspended due to falling sales caused by the Depression.

In 1932 Max Kortlander bought QRS for $25,000 and changed the name to the Imperial Industrial Company. In the 1930s, Lawrence took a job with the U.S. Postal service, but still continued to take on assignments both for Imperial and the Aeolian Corporation.  Working in the basement of his home in the Bronx, he also produced small quantities of rolls for collectors.

Prior to and during this period, Lawrence was making at least 30 roll arrangements a month and some numbers were issued using pseudonyms, including Eubie Jones, “Fats” Waller, Fred Parsons, Cal Welch, Jack Pierce, Tom Blake, Walter Redding, “Pep” Doyle and Sid Laney.  According to Mike Montgomery, the name Sid Laney originates from the QRS plant located in Sydney, Australia and Lawrence’s Augusta school founder Lucy Craft Laney.  John Farrell has compiled a comprehensive listing of all known piano rolls played by Thomas Waller, together with those arranged by J. Lawrence Cook and issued under the name of “Fats” Waller.

Among his finest works, created during the 40s and 50s, are his transcriptions of famous jazz pianists of the day. In this genre are roll arrangements “as played by” Erroll Garner, Frankie Carle, “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum and Bob Zurke.  Many of these high-quality masterpieces were featured at my player piano concerts from 1975 to 1987.

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from the New York Age, dated Saturday, 2nd November 1929, page 8, column 2.

New York Age

Alpha Delta Chapter
Initiates New Members

On Saturday night, October 26, the Alpha Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma held an initiation. Among those initiated were John C. Ashhurst, N. Y. U.; C. G. Christian and Lionel Russell, C. C. N. Y., and J. Lawrence Cook, Columbia.

The officers of Alpha Delta are Alston Norton, president; Alonzo Redwin, vice-president; Gordon C. King, secretary; Walton Mitchell, treasurer.

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following advert from the New York Age, dated Saturday, 12th July 1930, page 7, column 2.

New York Age

“From Blues to
Rhapsody in Blue”

Private lessons in Modern, Refined Jazzy Playing by a well known Q. R. S. Player Roll Artist. Write: J. Lawrence Cook, 409 Edgecombe Ave., 4B, New York City.

Dr. Jean Lawrence Cook sends details of this interesting piano folio titled: J. LAWRENCE COOK’S Collection of Modernistic Jazz Arrangements for Piano, which was published in 1930.

Click to enlarge

Collection of
Modernistic Jazz
Arrangements for Piano


During the past decade J. Lawrence Cook has devoted his time to recording and arranging popular music for player piano rolls. He has always sought to temper his work according to the type of song at hand, plus his personal interpretation of it — endeavoring always to follow a trend of harmonic changes pleasing to the ear, whether in concords or discords, sparing no effort to make “blues” BLUE, and melodious numbers, snappy and with refined interpolations and novel inventions.

This folio is published to satisfy the demands of many of his pupils in jazz, admirers of his playing and his innumberable friends.

This collection holds no charm for beginners. It will furnish a wealth of worthy material to those who have studied music to some extent.

The three “shouts” should be memorized, for with such compositions at the pianists finger tips, he need never be timid about giving zest to the program of an evenings entertainment when the call for “pep” is sent forth.

The miscellaneous selections of choruses offers an interesting study in styles of executing the diversified types of popular songs they represent.

“Modernistic Reverie”, the final piece, seeks to demonstrate what the “jazzmind”, inured to outbursts of boisterous rhythm and strange intermixings of concord and discord, contemplates when set at ease.

Certain of the numbers in this collection may be heard on player piano rolls exactly as arranged, thereby enabling the pianist to hear the author’s exact interpretation. For those who wish to obtain these rolls, the following list is offered —

Get Away Big
Don’t Try To High Hat Me
Soul Stuff
If Every Little Boy Loved The Same Little Girl

Q.R.S. Roll # 4876
Q.R.S. Roll # 4755
Q.R.S. Roll # 4687
Q.R.S. Roll # 4960

We wish to express our sincere appreciation to Mr. Max Kortlander and Mr. W. C. Handy for the use of their compositions, and our heartiest gratitude to Mr. E. L. Sparkes for going over the proofs.





This book is respectfully dedicated to Mr. MAX KORTLANDER

Published By J. L. C. SONG SERVICE STUDIOS - 409 Edgecombe Ave, New York, U.S.A.

Steven Townsend and Prof. Alan Wallace send the following biographical entry for Jean Lawrence Cook from Who’s Who in Colored America, 4th edition 1933—1937, edited and published by Thomas Yenser, page 133. The photograph of J. Lawrence Cook accompanies his entry and appears on page 131.

Who's Who in Colored America

J. Lawrence Cook


COOK, JEAN LAWRENCE – Arranger and Recording Artist.

b. July 14, 1899, Athens, Tenn.; s. Jacob Lincoln and Zella (Lawrence) Cook; m. Edith Bascomb, Nov. 15, 1922; two children, Jean Lawrence, Jr., b. July 28, 1923; Annizella, b. Jan. 26, 1926; educ. Haines Inst., Augusta, Ga., 1914-19; Columbia Univ., 1926-27-28; Arranger and Recording Artist, The Q.R.S. Co., 1922-present; Arranged “All of God’s Chilluns Got Wings”; two arrangements of “St. Louis Blues”; auth. “Scared Cat,” “Cleopatra’s Needle”; mem. Elks; Monarch Lodge, No. 45; Phi Beta Sigma, Alpha Delta Chapter; Pol. Republican; Relig. Presbyterian; Residence, 1113 Prospect Ave., New York, N.Y.

He is the son of the late Rev. J. L. Cook, who was the first colored principal of Henderson Normal and Industrial Institute of Henderson, N.C.

Jean Lawrence Cook is the first and to this date the only colored Arranger and Recording Arstist (Artist) for the Q.R.S. Music Company.

Organized the J.L.C. Song Service Studios, a school of modern popular music, that seeks to approach the subject seriously and from a new pedagogical angle, in May, 1930. Wrote and published J. Lawrence Cook’s Collection of Modernistic Jazz Arangements for Piano. Compiled a twenty-lesson correspondence course in refined popular piano playing, with player piano rolls to demonstrate the exercises included in lesson assignments. Scored a concert-jazz arrangement of St. Louis Blues for W. C. Handy, the composer and publisher, and released the manuscript to W. C. Handy for publication.

He is the author of an Advanced Treatise on Modern Popular Piano Playing, in two volumes.

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following advert from the New York Age, dated Saturday, 30th June 1934, page 5, column 2.

New York Age

In the Realm of Music


J. Lawrence Cook, arranger for QRS Music Rolls, has edited a work called “Fifty Styles of Playing W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues.” This folio is published by Handy Brothers Music Co., Inc. and is for sale by all first class music publishers in the United States and Europe. It will help pianists to improvise when accompanying singers who like to have their own interpretation of this great song.

Prof. Alan Wallace sends details of the following items of J. Lawrence Cook memorabilia from his collection.

In 1934 Handy Brothers Music Co., Inc. published a 17-page folio of 50 Styles of Playing W. C. Handy’s SAINT LOUIS BLUES Jazz Breaks for Piano, arranged by J. Lawrence Cook, Q.R.S. Player Roll Artist and Earle L. Sparks.  Price $1.00. [Left Cover]

50 Styles of Playing W. C. Handy’s SAINT LOUIS BLUES Jazz Breaks for Piano - 1934 Cover 50 Styles of Playing W. C. Handy’s SAINT LOUIS BLUES Jazz Breaks for Piano - 1946 Cover

In 1946 Alfred Music Co., Inc. (Publishers of Instrumental Novelties by America’s Modern Composers) published a 17-page folio of 50 Styles of Playing W. C. Handy’s SAINT LOUIS BLUES Jazz Breaks for Piano, arranged by J. Lawrence Cook, Q.R.S. Player Roll Artist and Earle L. Sparks.  Price $1.00. [Right Cover]

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Karl Ellison and Randolph Herr send the following article, which was published in the Fortune magazine, dated December 1934.

Fortune Magazine

Off the Record

Music Rolls

Like the piano industry (see page 99), the player-piano roll industry has had tough sledding. But while the piano industry has good hopes of recovering, the player-roll industry looks very much as if it might not. Only ten years ago it was a $6,000.000 industry and was pounding its way day in and day out into American life.  But now it is almost completely archaic and a bit wistful. Sales in 1931 were only $428,000, and this year they will be less than half that.  There is only one very active company in the business — the Imperial industrial Corp. née the famous QRS Co. — and that is being kept up largely because Mr. Max Kortlander takes the business to heart.

QRS was the great roll name though no one knew for sure what the name stood for — maybe Quality, Real Service.  A QRS salesman passed through Grand Rapids in 1915 and heard young Max Kortlander play the piano.  He spotted Max as a natural for player rolls and persuaded him to go to Chicago.  So Max became one of the biggest player roll names, ranking with Pete Wendling and Lee S. Roberts.  In 1919 he wrote a song called Tell Me (“why nights are lonely; tell me, why days are blue”), which was sold for $100,000, the highest lump sum any popular song ever got.  As QRS slipped softly into its decline, Mr. Kortlander became a Director and in 1931 bought out the musical end of the business.  He calls it Imperial Industrial Corp., because with a name like that he can go into any business.  He plans to stick to rolls until he actually loses money — he says he hasn’t lost any yet.

IMPERIAL puts out about twenty new rolls a month and gets a steady call for old recorded numbers like the Blue Danube.  Sacred songs sell well and so does foreign music — Polish, Bohemian, and German, with Greek picking up fast.  South Africa is the best export field. Imperial’s biggest rivals are Ampico and Duo-Art, really the same company.  But they make rolls that can he played only on their own pianos.  They have big names like Paderewski and Hofmann on their rolls but don’t make any money and never did make much. Their only new output is popular stuff, no classical. Hardly any player pianos are made.

You probably know the principle of the player piano.  In the player piano is a perforated cylinder over which the roll passes.  When air is sucked in through a hole in the cylinder, a note plays. When you want to play C, you punch a hole in the paper so that it will pass over the C hole in the cylinder.  This makes it possible for anyone to make it piano roll by punching holes in paper. Which is just the way Imperial makes its rolls today. Mr. J. Lawrence Cook, a Negro, sits at his desk, a piano at his side, and plays a few bars of a song on the piano, arranging as he goes along. Then he draws lines on a roll of paper to indicate notes. Then someone punches holes where the lines are drawn, and there is your piano roll. It never gets near a piano until you play it. Mr. Cook does an average roll in two or three hours and is very adept at imitating the styles of popular pianists.

Ampico and Duo-Art scorn this cheaper method; their rolls are actually played and interpreted — as the old QRS roll were. It is, naturally, always possible to correct an interpretation by pasting up a wrong note or punching in an omitted one. Paderewski, a notoriously inaccurate player, always needed a lot of editing. It is also possible to perform feats that no pianist could dream of doing — miraculously full of chords and fantastic arpeggios. The old and very popular pianola style of rolling bass and octave tremolo was never actually played by pianists. It was punched in afterwards. The potentialities of the player once got musicians very excited. Busoni was going to write a special work for one but died before he got around to it.

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Millie Gaddini sends the following article from Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz by Teddy Wilson, with Arie Ligthart and Humphrey van Loo, published by Cassell, London and New York, 1996, pages 110—111.

Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz

Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz

by Teddy Wilson

I have done quite a bit of private teaching in my life, too, and the young people I’ve had as pupils have always been between sixteen and twenty years of age. At one time I had my own school in New York, “The Teddy Wilson School for Pianists,” from 1936 to 1939, with three excellent partners, and we turned out some very good students. J. Lawrence Cook was my chief assistant there and he was great on the theoretical side of the jazz piano and shaped the printed courses we had, containing sheet music of my improvisations on popular melodies. They proved very successful in teaching by mail. However, I had to give it up in the end because costs just kept soaring. Advertising and copyright payments were heavy items, especially as the latter were always for very popular songs. The other partners in my school were Eve Ross and Teddy Cassola. Their contribution rounded out the work done by the [sic] Cook and me. My having to be away traveling and performing so much of time led some to believe I only “fronted” the school. Not so. I was completely involved. [TW 110-111]

played by J. Lawrence Cook

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from the New York Age, dated Saturday, 8th February 1941, page 6, columns 3—4.

New York Age

Negro Youth Wins 2nd And 4th Honor Place
At Graduation Exercises Of Stuyvesant H. S.

When Stuyvesant High School held its graduating exercises on January 28 at Carnegie Hall, at which 556 boys received diplomas and certificates, two Negro youths Obert (Ubert) Vincent and Jean L. Cook jr. were honor graduates in second and fourth places respectively.

Ubert Vincent, son of Mrs. Naomi Vincent, of 251 West 138th street and the late Dr. U. Conrad Vincent, made a fine scholastic record of standing the fifth highest through his school career with an average of 92.5. On the basis of his regents of 97.3, second highest average in the school, he was awarded a $400 state scholarship to Columbia University along with other awards and citations and diplomas. One of his prize possessions is a gold medal for three years Latin.

In the romance language department young Vincent attained an average of 97.8 per cent for three years Latin.

Besides a remarkable record in his scholastic studies, Ubert also gave an equally fine account of himself in extra-curricula activities such as treasurer of Arista (school honor society); president of Latin society; captain of tennis team, “S” club, received major letter for tennis; member of Literary society, business staff, student’s committee. Latin team. Caliper (school literary publication) staff and received gold scholarship pin and gold service pin.

Jean L. Cook jr., son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Lawrence Cook sr. of 1113 Prospect avenue. Bronx, is in one respect like his classmate, Mr Vincent, in that he too is the recipient of a $400 scholarship to Columbia University. This boy who ranked fourth highest among other graduates had a page of merits listed in his name. During his career in Stuyvesant he kept his average at 95.09 per cent with his marks in French and English being 95.2 per cent and 94.9 per cent respectively. On his New York State Regents tests given in these subjects he made 97 per cent and 96 per cent.

Mr. Cook belonged to the following school clubs; vice president of French Club, member of Latin Society, member on senior chronicle, editor of “Stuyvescience” and member of Caliper staff, member of Arista, class president for four terms. At the commencement exercises he received a gold scholarship pin and a bronze service pin, and a French medal.

Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from the Music column of the TIME magazine, dated 15th February 1943, Vol. XLI, No. 7.


Roll On, Imperial

One of the most magniloquent named organizations on earth. Imperial Industrial Corp., was rolling steadily forward last week. Imperial Industrial Corp. belches no great plume of smoke over the industrial landscape; it is, simply, all that is left of the U.S. pianola business. But Imperial is a complete monopoly and it is enjoying a small boom, largely produced by A.F. of M. Boss James Caesar Petrillo’s ban on phonograph recording (Time, June 22).

Imperial Industrial Corp., under its portly, bespectacled President Max Kortlander, occupies the third floor of a rambling brick factory in the upper fringes of the Bronx. It seldom advertises, does much of its retailing through big concerns like Sears, Roebuck and Manhattan’s R. H. Macy & Co. Its customers are mostly U.S. farm families. To this small but steady market, Imperial sells approximately half a million pianola rolls a year. Biggest current sellers: When the Lights Go on Again, Moonlight Becomes You, The Beer Barrel Polka, Let Me Call You Sweetheart,Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life, The Star-Spangled Banner.

President Kortlander has about 25 employes
(sic). One is J. Lawrence Cook a dignified, 43 year-old Negro inherited from the company’s once-famed predecessor, the Q.R.S.* Music Roll Company. J. Lawrence Cook is a nearly indispensable man. There hangs a tale and a technique.

In the heyday of 1923, when 197,252 pianolas (more than 50% of all the pianos sold in the U.S.) were sold in a single year, the pianola industry hired the greatest pianists, such as Paderewski, to record their performances on perforated paper. It also hired such early jazzers as J. Lawrence Cook and Harlem’s historic James P. Johnson. But as the pianola gave ground to the phonograph, the pianola industry could no longer afford to pay for personal recordings.

Most of the pianola artists moved on to greener pastures. But J. Lawrence Cook stayed. He continued to make his own rolls, also produced rolls that accurately ghosted the performances of other jazz improvisers. He did this by listening to their phonograph records, carefully transcribing what he heard into a musical score, then playing his score on Imperial’s perforating machine. Today Imperial issues pianola rolls by such jazz artists as Fats Waller, Ted Baxter and Pete Mendoza. All are ghosted by J. Lawrence Cook.

Cook was born in Athens, Tenn., where the Negro J. L. Cook High School bears the name of his father, a Presbyterian minister. As a boy he learned the clarinet and piano. He never made the big time as a jazz pianist. But was a good “paper man” (i.e., a musician who can read, write and arrange music) he got a job with a Harlem music publisher, later with Q.R.S. in The Bronx. He has made over 20,000 arrangements for pianola rolls.

Today, Cook spends his days with Imperial, his evenings earning a little extra cash as a clerk in the post office near Grand Central Station. His 19-year-old son, Jean Lawrence, studies medicine at Columbia University, his daughter, Annizella, takes a voice course at the Julliard School of Music.

Cook has found time to complete a course in short story writing, also contributes a monthly column to the International Musician (official organ of the American Federation of Musicians) on jazz piano technique.

* The Original meaning of the letters lost, Q.R.S. executives explained that they meant “Quality, Real Service.”

TIME, February 15, 1943

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Dr. Robert Pinsker sends details of this interesting piano instruction folio titled, PIANO HANDBOOK on BOOGIE WOOGIE, BLUES and BARRELHOUSE by J. Lawrence Cook, which was published in 1944.

Click to enlarge



Foreword by M. H. Goldsen

Boogie Woogie, Blues and Barrelhouse are the three famous “B’s” of jazz styles. Each is entirely different, yet are often mistaken for each other by the general public and amateur musician. In chronological order, the blues, no doubt, came first . . .

The pleasant sensation of playing this style has prompted pianists to seek out publications that featured the “eight to the bar” music.  However, no one publication was able to satisfy their desire to learn it fast and at the same time, learn the other two “B’s” — barrelhouse and the blues. That is the object of this publication.


(Exercises and solos)
A Simple Boogie Woogie Chorus
Boogie On The Beam

(Exercises and solos)
A Typical Blues Verse
Don’t Cross That Door Blues

(Exercises and solos)
Don’t Try To High Hat Me




Copyright 1944 CAPITOL SONGS, Inc. RKO Bldg. Room 605. New York, N.Y.
First printing May 1944

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Roger Richard sends the following article titled: “Frog-I-more Rag” by Roy J. Carew, which was published in The Jazz Record magazine, dated October 1947, No. 59, page 12.

The Jazz Record

Frog-I-more Rag


One day in 1918, soon after arriving in Los Angeles from Chicago, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton picked up a pen, and, on a sheet of manuscript paper, carefully wrote the heading “Frog-i-more Rag . . . by Ferd Morton, Writer of Jelly Roll Blues.” He thereupon proceeded to put upon paper a ragtime composition which he held in high regard. In Frog-i-more Rag Morton followed a customary form, — introduction, first part, second part, repeated first part and a trio. The composition is tuneful, the 32 bar trio especially having a beautiful melody. About 1923 the Spikes Brothers and Jelly Roll in collaboration used the first part and trio of the rag for a song which they called Froggy Moore, which was never published. After Ferd became connected with the Melrose outfit in Chicago, Walter Melrose used an adaptation of the trio of Frog-i-more for the chorus of a sickly sentimental song published as Sweetheart O’Mine, to Jelly Roll’s understandable disgust. Recordings have been made and issued under the various titles, but it is always Frog-i-more that is used.

Frog-i-more Rag is one of Ferd Morton’s finest, and I seized the opportunity to acquire the rights to the number, in the belief that it deserved to be in printed form. The limited edition I have just published fully justifies my belief. Jelly’s piano solo as issued on S-D 103 was chosen, and Mr. J. Lawrence Cook did a superlative piece of transcribing and editing. Frog-i-more is the finest example of a published rag that has appeared in many years, and with six full pages of Jelly Roll’s improvisations, it is the first time, to my knowledge, that any Morton number has ever been published exactly as he played it, note for note, from introduction to final bar. The sheet music of this edition should be of especial interest to the student of ragtime and jazz piano, as the back cover carries a facsimile of Morton’s original manuscript of the trio, and the simple way he wrote the trio can be compared with the “stepped up” version he played. When one remembers that Jelly “never played a number twice alike” this edition should furnish revealing proof of his powers of improvisation.

Note: See also Mike Meddings’ essay of Benson Foraker Moore accompanied by his WWI Draft Registration Card.

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Duncan Schiedt, renowned jazz photographer, author and historian sends the following breathtaking black-and-white photographs, which he took of J. Lawrence Cook and others at the Imperial Industrial Co., New York in 1949. Duncan had gone along to ask J. Lawrence Cook about his memories of ‘Fats’ Waller, whose biography Ain’t Misbehavin’ he was then researching.

J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph                         J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph

L.   Performing and recording an arrangement direct onto the master roll using the step-perforator and recording piano unit. [AR 1]

R. Editing the pre-production master roll against a first test punching of the finished roll. Here a hand punch is being used. [AR 1]

J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph                         J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph

L.  Using a suction pump to keep the perforator mechanism clean for optimal operation. [AR 1]

R. Once the pre-production master is produced, a copy for use in factory production is run off, as shown in this picture. [AR 1]

© 2005 Duncan Schiedt

J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph                 J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph

L.  Another view of J. Lawrence Cook performing and recording an arrangement direct onto the master roll using the step-perforator and recording piano unit. [AR 1]

R.  A side view of J. Lawrence Cook editing the pre-production master roll against a first test punching of the finished roll. This picture shows him using a knife. [AR 1]

J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph                 The perforator operator is Louis Esposito. The onlooker appears to be John Sonnentag - click here to view enlarged photograph

L.   Checking the paper that feeds into the twin production perforator. [AR 1]

R.  Producing piano rolls from the final master roll. This twin perforator uses one master roll to operate two side-by-side punches to produce multiple copies quickly. There is another similar machine in the background. [AR 1] The perforator operator is Louis Esposito. The onlooker appears to be John Sonnentag who worked in the shipping department from 1916 to 1966. [BB 1]

Note: Although J. Lawrence Cook could no doubt operate the machinery, he didn’t necessarily do them all as his job. Some of these shots may well be simply posed around the factory to make an interesting photo-shoot. [AR 1]

Note: In 1949, when Duncan took the above photographs of J. Lawrence Cook and others, the Imperial Industrial Co. was located at 699 East 135th Street, New York 54, New York. [BB 1]

© 2005 Duncan Schiedt

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

From his vast collection of sheet music memorabilia, ‘Perfessor’ Bill Edwards sends this 1949 sheet music cover of THE OLD PIANO ROLL BLUES. Lawrence (Piano Roll) Cook is featured on the cover, along with a number of other notable artists.

Click to enlarge

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Abbey Records, a small record company located at 418 W. 49th Street, New York City, was the creation of Peter Doraine and was his attempt to become a major player in the world of the Rhythm & Blues independent record companies during the late 1940s. In March 1949, Abbey discovered what they were looking for in terms of publicity, credibility and success.  It came from a surprising source.

Matrix G-711 Abbey #15003
by arr. Q.R.S. Piano Rolls

(Cy Coben)

sung by

Matrix G-710 Abbey #15003
by arr. Q.R.S. Piano Rolls

(Davis - Pease - Glason - Nelson)

sung by

Note: In June 1950 the music roll of “The Old Piano Roll Blues” played by J. Lawrence Cook was issued on QRS 8626.

In 1949 J. Lawrence Cook was contracted to make music rolls, which would appear on 78-r.p.m. Abbey Records. An exploratory list, compiled by Mike Montgomery, appears in Volume 5 of The Billings Rollography. [BR]

The 2 sides below were recorded at “Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor” 117-03 Hillside Avenue, Richmond Hill, Queens, New York City.

Matrix G-927 Abbey #15042


(Don George - Bee Walker)

Sung by

Matrix G-928 Abbey #15042

(Don George - Bee Walker)

Sung by

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

 Brian Goggin sends the following article from the New York Age, dated Saturday, 22nd November 1952, Vol. 73, No. 37, page 4, columns 1—4 and page 11, column 1.

New York Age

His ‘Monopoly In Music’
Wins 29 Years Of Fame


Ever wonder what became of more than two million player pianos which gave Victor “talking machine” such a run for its money? There are still at least 100,000 in use today. Perhaps the guy around the corner from you has one rotting in his basement.

Well . . . if he’s pretty disgusted about playing the same dog-eared piano rolls over and over through the years, we know a guy . . . and he’s got one of the best monopolies in the world.

His name is J. Lawrence Cook, and since May 1st, 1923, he has been a piano roll maker for Q.R.S. Music Company (now Imperial Industrial Company) of 699 E. 135th St., the only (you heard us right) the only company in the entire United States still engaged in making music rolls for mechanical instruments.

From his home at 834 (824) E. 165th St., Bronx, where he has been confined for three months following a delicate eye operation, the Rev. Elder G. Hawkins, pastor of St. Augustine Presbyterian Church, had this to say: “The Cook family has been an integral part of the church since the doors first opened. They are an inspiration, not only to their race, but to all peoples who look to church ties and family ties as the last hope of salvation in a troubled world.”

“Driver’s Seat”

Mr. Cook was anything but what you would expect a guy “in the driving seat” of a monopolistic industry to be. Just returned from a one-month vacation in Europe where he and Edith (the little woman) visited their son and daughter (more about them anon), the inventor-musician was a picture of ease and relaxation in his 814 (824) E. 165th St., Bronx, home.

“Actually I wanted to be a musician and composer when I left my home in Athens, Tenn., and went to Haynes (Haines) Institute in Augusta, Ga.,” Mr. Cook began, “but I soon found out that I had to eat, and decided on a more practical career.

“I became fascinated by the player piano, despite my classical training, and when, in one of the Etude magazines, I saw a machine advertised for home piano roll making, I bought one to study it.

“I came to New York in 1920, and with some home-made rolls under my arm, started making the rounds of different instrument companies looking for a job. My reception was less than enthusiastic until I met James P. Johnson who was just hitting the big-time with his music on piano rolls.

Began to Click

“He was working for Q.R.S., and though they didn’t show too much interest in the work I had done in my home workshop, they let me fool around with some of Johnson’s numbers. They were called ‘special blues bulletins’ then. I did most of the work on a little machine at home.

“I kept plugging though,” Cook’s face lit up in retrospect, “and in the meantime I met and married Edith. I sent some of my work to the U.S. Music Company in Chicago, and surprisingly enough, they liked it. Before long I was so improved that the U.S. rolls began making a hit.

Outstanding Authority

“Q.R.S. Music Company investigated the success of the rival company, and after finding out that I was one of the main cogs in the wheel, they called on me quick. They wanted me to sign a contract, but I had a good job at the Post Office, and I couldn’t see giving it up.

“Finally, on May 1st, 1925 (1923), I signed a contract with Q.R.S., and I’ve been with them from that time until now, when I command the position of being the outstanding authority on the production of mechanical music in the country. They are the only company in the U.S. still making player rolls.”

We retired to the basement of the tastefully furnished private house, where Mr. Cook had set up his machinery and workshop. “Down here,” he pointed, “I turn out an average of three new musical arrangements a week, and ‘masters’ for thousand of piano rolls.

“Most of my work is for nickelodeons,” he advised. “I started that years ago when I started receiving queries from people who owned them and wanted to make money for them. At that time I was punching most of the rolls by hand, but I couldn’t keep it up. So I purchased these machines and went into business for myself.

Beats Juke Boxes

“You may be surprised to know that there are about 5,000 nickelodeons in operation throughout the country, with about 200 in this area. A fellow in Hempstead, L.I., at the ‘Gay Nineties’ has about 30, and another man in Freehold, N.J., a collector, has about 40. ‘John’s’ (Jahn’s) machine in Richmond Hill, L.I., is worth about $1,000, and the operator makes more money from it than a commercial record player.

“By the way, player pianos and nickelodeons aren’t my only outlet. I also supply music rolls for merry-go-rounds, hurdy gurdys, carillons, chimes, and all mechanical instruments. There’s quite a demand for music rolls from these sources and from circuses and carnivals.”

Sold 200,000

Lawrence glossed over the fact that his recording of “Piano Roll Blues” on Abbey Records, sold over 200,000 records last year, “but Tin Pan Alley is too tough for me,” the musician exclaimed. “I’ve still been unable to get into ASCAP after all these years.”

Once more upstairs in the living room, Mr. Cook recapped his experiences during his month’s sojourn in Europe. “My wife went over at the end of July to see the children, and I went over last month. It was sort of a reunion.

Teaches School

Annizella Cook, the inventor’s daughter, is on leave from P.S. 98 on W. 145th St. She is spending a year in France studying literature and music to get additional credits as a voice student.

Capt. Jean Cook, the couple’s handsome son, returns to the U.S. this Christmas, after two years of internal medicine with the U.S. Army in Captieux, France. Dr. Cook will return to his post as resident and instructor at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., where he left to see service.

First Resident

The brilliant M.D. is best remembered as the first Negro resident doctor to enter Columbia Medical Center five years ago.

(Continued on Page 11)

His Monopoly

(Continued from Page 4)

Ending the “Cook’s Tour” with a special note of thanks to the amazing man of music, he shrugged it off, and made a heart beat faster with the promise: “Wait a couple of weeks, and I’ll really have something big to tell you. I’m sworn to secrecy now, but you’ll hear of it before Christmas.”

Note: Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor was located at 117-03 Hillside Avenue, Richmond Hill, Queens, New York City from the 1930s until November 2007. It was one of Richmond Hill’s favourite restaurant spots for dinner and ice cream. Many of the original items from that era of the early 1900s were still on display in Jahn’s, such as the working nickelodeon piano. In 1949 J. Lawrence Cook recorded several records for the Abbey label using the nickelodeon in Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor.

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from The Kingston Daily Freeman, dated Wednesday, 17th December 1952, page 21, columns 1—2.

The Kingston Daily Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Do You Remember


Remember years back some of us could boast of a player-piano. I never had one, because my father believed in piano lessons for his daughter, so I had to be the piano player in the family. But there was nothing that used to give me such a thrill like being allowed to run someone else’s player-piano. I used to throw the lever and pump like anything and watch the roll go around as the music rolled out. Who made these rolls or how I never did find out. I found The New York Journal-American of Wednesday, Dec. 3, 1952 — and see that Bob Considine in his column gives away the secret.

Today there are still 50,000 player pianos in this country and their hunger for music rolls is supplied by J. Lawrence Cook, a 53-year-old ‘genius’ who for the past 32 years hat been turning out ‘master rolls.’ At present he it the only man doing this type of work. He works for the Imperial Industrial Corporation in New York. Mr. Cook turns out these magic rolls in a little room in the Bronx. He sits down at a piano attached by little rubber tubes to the “Goldbergian” device that perforates the master roll and grinds out the ‘popular numbers’ according to Bob Considine.

“Then Cook goes home, sits down at his own piano, which is attached to a similar perforating machine, and punches out rolls for his real love — the nickelodeon. The nickelodeon foreran the player-piano.” Perhaps folks still remember the nickelodeons. “You put a nickle in the slot, and the magic machine played one of 10 songs attached to the rotating roll.
[] Some of these machines were quite complicated with built-in drums, castanets and mandolin effects. “Cook gets from $15 to $20 for a roll of 10 nickelodeon numbers. He has a mailing list of some 600 fond clients, but he estimates,” according to Bob Considine, “that there are some 3,000 nickelodeons still in good working condition in this country.”

In the days when the nickelodeons were popular one could buy some kind of contraption that made an ordinary piano sound like other musical instruments were attached. I remember someone showed me how to take a long string and attach paper clips the length of the piano inside. One clip for each string, so that when I played the piano the clips hit the various strings, sort of a mandolin effect was accomplished. It sounded fine to me, but when my father heard it, he did not think it such a good idea and made me take it off. In those days, so it. seemed to me, more children took piano lessons. After school you heard piano practicing coming from many homes, today I hear it very seldom. Also, I used to see students walking with their music either rolled in leather roller or flat going to or from the music teacher, now I never see it.

Also I remember popular orchestras used to have their own arrangements in books sold on stands with sheet music in many stores, today these same stands seem to be filled with comic books. Then, everyone wanted to have a copy of a popular number and you would hear it played on every street by amateurs with the left hand doing a ‘dubbing in fake’ bass for the right hand melody, sometimes in octaves for effect. Tricky modern chords became popular which made all melodies seem to sound alike. I remember how my father was against me making up my own chords. “Play as it is written,” he used to say.

Julian Dyer and Denis Hall send details of the following James P. Johnson piano rolls recordings, which appeared on a 1954 London LP record.

In 1954 London Origins of Jazz released a 10-inch long-playing record titled JAMES P. JOHNSON Early Harlem Piano. The record features 8 piano rolls by James P. Johnson. The recordings were made with the co-operation of J. Lawrence Cook. London AL 3511.

Early Harlem Piano

Side No. 1
I’ve got my habits on
Harlem Strut
Vampin’ Liza Jane

Side No. 2
Harlem choc’late babies on parade
Make me a pallet on the floor
Loveless Love
It take love to cure the heart’s disease

Eight selections never before issued on records
transcribed from piano rolls

In the Harlem piano circles there was a lot of competition for supremacy and players such as Lucky (Luckey) Roberts, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller would engage in cutting contests, learning from each other as they competed. These ‘rent-party’ sessions were noted for hard-hitting, spirited playing and a general lack of respect for the other people’s talents - except in the case of James P. Johnson. He was established as king of the pianists, not one that you tried to beat but one you tried to emulate; his ideas were bigger and his technique better; a real musicians’ musician. And because he preferred the real jazz, and performed it with a deceptive ease and grace he has remained the musicians’ musician and is not known to a very wide public.

He is also a great composer. The Charleston is one of his best known creations, and Runnin’ wild. He composed hundreds of pieces for the piano, examples of which are to be found on this record — Harlem strut, Harlem choc’late babies on parade and It takes love to cure the heart’s disease. He was one of Bessie Smith’s favourite accompanists, and played with musicians of every style and generation with equal facility. For the past few years ho has been seriously ill and not much in the musical limelight, but, for his artistry, his teaching, and, more practically, his generosity to struggling artistes, he is and always will be remembered particularly amongst the musicians of his own race. His music and his records are sought by collectors for they are always authentic and first-rate. As one critic says: “It is safe to say that he has never played a superficial or a tasteless note in all of his long career.”

His style is the lusty Harlem style which we have become familiar with mainly through the popular recordings of Fats Waller. A pounding, good-time music, full of exhilaration and the joy of playing, a professional and skilful kind of jazz that retains all the true spirit of the cruder New Orleans variety.

Because he was purely a pianist, without Fats’ vocal abilities, Johnson’s records have mostly stayed in the obscure archives of the collector’s haunts. Very few of them had been issued in this country until recently when two long-playing selections were made up, one called Daddy of the Piano which included some of his earlier solos and another of Fats Waller Favourites which he recorded in June, 1944. This present selection goes right back to the early ‘twenties and gives us J. P. Johnson in his heyday, and it’s all rough, rolling jazz from start to finish. They were originally cut for QRS piano rolls, but with the decline in the pianola’s popularity, ousted by the radio and gramophone, they were forgotten, and might easily have been destroyed if the jazz revival, arid such enthusiasts as Bill Grauer, had not come along and saved them. The piano roll library is proving a positive treasure-trove of such music, recorded by early composers like Scott Joplin and the great jazz pianists such as Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton.

Only now can we appreciate the full quality of Johnson’s playing. We find rhythmic, brilliant, almost breath-taking music with a range from the blues tempo of Make me a pallet on the floor through a swinging version of Handy’s Loveless love, to the dexterities of Harlem strut and the boisterous Charleston.

James P. Johnson started with the ragtime tradition strong in his blood. He was born in New Jersey but soon drifted to New York and with the ragtime as basis, he added a strong feeling for the blues and his natural flair and liking for the better type of party and theatre music; the result is the unique mixture to be heard in its original form here and to be heard at second hand in the playing of all the pianists who learnt their playing within the orbit of the great originator. These rolls were made from 1921 to 1926, of tunes by such diverse composers as Jimmy Durante and W. C. Handy, and including four of Johnson’s own compositions. All of them take on a new vigour at his touch.

The recordings were made with the co-operation of J. Lawrence Cook, a pianist in his own right who can be heard on London records. He has probably cut more piano rolls himself than anybody else, and was present at many of these sessions by other pianists. Judging by his faithful rendering of the solos on the Fats Waller Jazz Archive record, a style we are more familiar with, we can assume that these mechanical renderings at James P. Johnson have been given the maximum of reality and authenticity by his sympathetic and expert touch.

It is a safe bet, that these wonderful solos will do a great deal to readjust Johnson’s standing in the estimate of the average collector, putting him in as high a position in popular esteem as he holds amongst jazz musicians and critics already in the know. This is a lesson in the adjustment of comparative values, one which we should have learned long ago from the unproven rumours of Johnson’s greatness. Now, at any rate, we have the proof.

Original QRS label numbers of the roll and months of issue are as follows:- It takes love to cure the heart’s disease (1339), April 1921: Loveless love (1340), April 1921: Harlem strut (101014), May 1921: I’ve got my habits on (1814) [sic] (1804), January [sic] (February) 1922: Vampin’ Liza Jane (1836), February 1922: Charleston (3143), June 1925: Harlem choc’late babies on parade (3526), July 1926: Pallet on the floor (3626), September 1926.

a “Riverside” record
Produced by
Bill Grauer, Jnr., and Orrin Keepnews


 played by J. Lawrence Cook

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from The Leader-Herald, dated Saturday, 14th May 1955, page 4, column 7.

The Leader-Herald, Gloversville and Johnstown, N.Y.

The Marquee

Record Shop

By Dick Kleiner

There’s a fistful of fine new pop piano albums: From Clef comes five more volumes in the series, “The Genius of Art Tatum,” and three more of Oscar Peterson’s albums, with Oscar playing the works of McHugh, Arlen, Warren. From Cadence is J. Lawrence Cook with “Popular Favorites on the Player Piano”; from RCA comes Frankie Carle playing Cole Porter; and from Jubilee comes Jack Kelly with a collection called “Badinage.”

Prof. Alan Wallace sends details of the following J. Lawrence Cook music rolls, which appeared on a 1955 Cadence EP record — Cadence CEP 1003X.

In 1955 Cadence Records released a 7-inch extended play record titled:





Not everyone owns a player-piano. Not everyone wants to own one. But now, with this album, everyone who owns a record player can enjoy the music that comes from this one.

As nearly as we can figure, and this is mostly a guess, there are fewer than 100,000 player-pianos in the United States. Although there are plans underway for putting out a modern player-piano, the old ones have never been retired from service — and places like Macy’s and their other big city counterparts are still selling player-piano rolls. A person who is addicted to player-piano music, is really addicted. Anyone within a radius of 25 miles of a player-piano seems to feel he can drop in the owner’s house at anytime (and bring tourist friends) to grab a quick listen.

Player-piano music is extremely nourishing. By that I mean very satisfying to hear, because something seems to be going on with much more profusion than it seems to have a right to. It is also a real link with the past and, if no personal association is made with the past, then an historical memento. An old yellow player-piano roll, mellowed with age and still playable gives a person the same feeling as reading hieroglyphics from an Egyptian papyrus.

I’ve probably given the one impression that I wanted most not to give, that player-piano music is dated. It is not. It might seem hard to believe, but player-piano music has kept astride of the times like the modern automobile. One can trace the history of different styles of piano playing through piano rolls. There are the usual different moods, tempos and styles. To be sure, you can get plenty of player-piano rolls with barrel-house, boogie woogie and old nicelodeon-type sounds but, there also times when a tuxedo and/or tails should be worn while listening to rolls that have been cut by Josef Hoffman, Walter Geisieking and Sergei Rachmaninoff. You know these men aren’t playing piano, nickelodeon style.

This brings us, then, to modern piano — player roll style. Who would think to record player-piano rolls. I know I wouldn’t. And I don’t think you would either unless your name was Archie Bleyer. Archie was listening to a player-piano one night and he was so charmed with the music that he decided then and there to record the selections contained herein.

J. Lawrence Cook, who is the chief and only active player-piano artisan was contacted for help in preparation of these sides. Mr. Cook has devoted his life-time to the making of player-piano rolls. He claims that player-piano music is a separate and distinct art form aside from manual piano playing and the nickelodeon. The nickelodeon usually does not compare with the range of sound or beauty of the player-piano. I pass this bit of information on to you for what it’s worth. Most player-piano owners will feel rather deeply insulted if you refer to their instrument as a nickelodeon. A nickelodeon doesn’t have any keys and was made for an expressly different purpose. I’m not sure a nickelodeon would enjoy being called a player-piano anyway! But it’s just to keep the facts straight that I mention it.

The interesting thing to most people is the fact that the player-piano rolls recorded in this album include some of the hit tunes . . . not of 1890, 1910 or even 1936 but of 1955. I think you’ll admit that hearing songs from the 1955 hit parade on a player-piano seems a little incongruous, but you will also admit, if you are scanning the miscellaneous for sale classified for an advertisement reading: PLAYER-PIANO FOR SALE, GOOD CONDITION, 100 ROLLS, REASONABLE. . . .

But if you don’t find one, we think you will welcome this compressed portable, traveling-style player-piano that you can slip onto your phonograph and make the conversion faster than it takes a record to go around three times faster than 33.1/3.


 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Prof. Alan Wallace sends details of the following J. Lawrence Cook music rolls, which appeared on a 1959 Mercury LP record.

In 1959 Mercury Records released a 12-inch long-playing stereo record titled PIANO-ROLL ROCK’N ROLL. The record features 12 music rolls by J. Lawrence Cook.  Guitar, string bass and drums accompany the numbers.  Mercury SR 60083.

The liner notes on the reverse side of the record cover give no indication that Lawrence was involved in the actual recording.  However, his music rolls, played on a Hardman Duo Player Piano, are in good company with accompanying musicians, Milton Hinton, Tony Mottola, George Duvivier and Osie Johnson.

In the mid 1950’s, the Hardman Piano Company, introduced the “Hardman Duo”, an electrified player piano in a modern “console” case.  The company slogan was “It’s Twice The Fun when Your Piano is 2-in-1 — See The Hardman Duo today!”



Rock ’n roll on the piano roll

J. Lawrence Cook bridges three generations of music appeal, with this player-piano, plus all-star supporting musicians’ album.

But how can Cook claim to be an artist when a player-piano is mechanically grinding out the modern hits, backed by rhythm section?

Cook happens to be one of an almost deceased profession. He’s a piano-roll-perforator-musician! The nostalgic player piano (a genuine Hardman-Duo) tinkled out its melody from a role (sic) perforated by Cook himself from an arrangement he’s worked out especially for the player-piano!

Just as many have thrilled from the turn of the century to the marvellous foot-pedal operated or electric player piano, so too, today’s teen-agers will join their parents and grandparents to the call of the Cook player-piano.

A Cook’s tour of the musical world

J. Lawrence Cook came to New York from Pittsburgh in 1920, after completing a college preparatory course in piano technique. He’s been fascinated by the player piano from childhood, recalling sitting through three or four runs of a silent flicker just to hear the player-piano background. In the spring of 1921, he purchased a simple, hand-operated music roll perforator and studied the work of contemporary piano roll artists. His first piano rolls were made for U.S. Music Rolls in 1921 and continued thru 1923, when he joined the staff of Q.R.S., with whom he is still associated.



(Jimmy DeNight & Max Freedman) Myers Music, Inc. (Ascap) ...1:50
(John Mercer) Palm Springs Music Co. (Ascap) ... 2:07
(Otis Blackwell & Elvis Presley) Elvis Presley Music, Inc. & Shalimar Music Corp (both BMI) ... 2:42
(J. Lawrence Cook & Theresa Baguato) Pure Music Co. (BMI) ... 2:42
(Frankie Lymon & George Goldner) Patricia Music Publ. Corp. (BMI) ... 2:38
(J. Lawrence Cook) Pure Music Co. (BMI) ...1:43


(Leiber & Stoller) Elvis Presley Music, Inc. & Lion Publ. Co, Inc. (both BMI) ...1:32
(Sheldon Harnick & Jerry Bock) Sunbeam Music & Valando Music (both Ascap) ...1:30
(B. Bryant & Felice Bryant) Acuff-Rose Publications (BMI) ... 2:10
(Moe Koffman) Kahl Music, Inc. (BMI) ...1:51
(Jim McCracklin & V. Garlic) Arc Music Corp. (BMI) ... 2:01
(J. Lawrence Cook) Pure Music Co. (BMI) ... 2:49


For this recording session, the Hardman Duo player-piano, which played the piano rolls arranged and perforated by J. Lawrence Cook, was set front left with an RCA 44-BX microphone reproducing the sound. Tony Mottola’s guitar was also captured thru an RCA 44-BX, while the stringed bass, played alternately by George Duvivier or Milton Hinton, worked to a Telefunken U-47, as did drummer Osie Johnson. Bass was set on the left with the piano, while drums and guitar are on the right for stereo. For the monaural recording, all four mikes were picked up on one tape track as on Amplex 300, while for stereo, the separate left and right channels were etched on quarter-inch tape by an Amplex 350 stereo tape recorder.

Notice the authenticity of this recording, wherein at the start of each number, the mechanical noise of the player-piano is slightly audible. Note too at the end of “Searching and Dreaming” there’s a retard, not usually found in player piano rolls. In fact, player piano rolls are extremely difficult for live musicians to work with, because their mechanical perfection is at times disconcerting in that sidemen vary tempo, while the piano roll is as steady as its mechanical counterpart, the metronome.

Hal Mooney
Mercury Recording Director

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following obituary notice for Max Kortlander from The New York Times, dated Thursday, 12th October 1961, page 29, column 5.

The New York Times


Max J. Kortlander, composer of popular songs and a manufacturer of piano rolls, died yesterday in the office of the Imperial Industrial Company, 781 East 136th Street, the Bronx. His age was 71.

Mr. Kortlander was president of the company, which engages exclusively in the manufacture of player piano rolls.

He was the composer of the song “Tell Me,” which achieved considerable popularity after World War I. His other songs included “Any Time, Any Day, Any Where,” “Red Moon” and “Bygones.”

Mr. Kortlander lived at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., and belonged to the Metropolitan Club here, the Everglades Club in Palm Beach and the Peninsula Club in Grand Rapids.

He leaves his wife, the former Gertrude Williams; a son, Stephen of Santa Monica, Calif.; a daughter, Miss Jean E. Kortlander of Pacific Palisades, Calif.; a stepson, Jackson Begoon of Rye; a brother, Herman of this city and three sisters, Mrs. Lois Marshall and the Misses Dorothy and Marguerite Kortlander.

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from the Recreation column of the TIME magazine, dated 22nd June 1962, Vol. LXXIX, No. 25, page 76, columns 1—3.

Pret-ty Ba-by in the basement


No Hands

Conductor Franz Waxman raised his baton, and the orchestra sailed into the opening bars of Stravinsky’s piano concerto. Then he gave the nod for the first piano passage, and the piano came right in on cue. The audience at last week’s International Music Festival in Los Angeles did 2,000 double takes: though the piano bench was vacant, the music was coming out loud and clear.

The instrument was a player piano, and the unseen fingers that pounded the keys belonged, in a way, to Stravinsky himself. The absent Igor had made a piano roll of the concerto’s first movement in 1925, was in Europe at the time of this pianistic hanky-panky and missed hearing Stravinsky playing Stravinsky (see Music).

Peppermint & Rolls. As the unmanned Steinway eerily picked its note-perfect way through the concerto in Los Angeles, thousands of other pianolas* were making rumpus rooms, rathskellers and taverns resound all over the U.S. Most of them — foot-pumped jobs with no concert-grand pretensions — were being played for the sheer rinky-tink fun of it by people who own either vintage instruments rescued from dusty oblivion or brand-new 1962 models, bought in a shiny showroom. The player piano is coming back into its own again to the tune of Moon River and The Peppermint Twist. And, once again, people are clustering around and singing the old favorites as the hyphenated lyrics (“Va-len-cia! In my dreams it always seems I hear you softly call to me . . .”) roll past like a speech on a presidential TelePrompTer.

Macy’s in Manhattan carries a 2,500-roll library, sells about 200 rolls a week, compared with ten rolls a week two years ago. Most of the rolls are old standards (After the Ball, Ain’t We Got Fun, The Old Rugged Cross), but new numbers from Broadway musicals and the transistor hit parade are added each week. The source of Macy’s supply is the Q.R.S. Co. in The Bronx. Lone survivor of the once more than 50 U.S. roll makers, Q.R.S. sees brighter days ahead. Its artist-in-residence, J. Lawrence Cook, turns out the rolls by playing on a special piano rigged to a device like an IBM machine, which punches the proper holes in a master roll. Then the master roll is placed on the production perforator, which can punch out more than 30 finished rolls at a time. A second manufacturer, Aeolian Music Rolls of Glendale, Calif., joined the roll-making ranks 1½ years ago, is currently turning out 1.500 rolls a day. In Palisades Park, N.J., ex-Tugboat Captain John Duffy, 39, who deals in both new and rebuilt player pianos, has seen his business grow from a kitchen-and-basement operation to a 14-man organization in four years. Duffy grossed $220,000 in 1961 and expects to go to $500.000 this year.

Shoulders & Shading. In cabarets and coffee houses across the land, pianolas are twanging away. Barney’s Market Club in Chicago is typical. Says Co-Owner Harry Schwimmer: “When we have a banquet or a bachelor party, they don’t play cards after dinner like they used to; they congregate around the piano, throw their arms around each other’s shoulders, drink their beer, puff their cigars, and rip off the good old songs.” But the pianola’s biggest comeback is in the parlor. Many buyers are women who recall the pleasure of pumping one as a child and want to share the fun with their own kids. In suburban Elmhurst, 111., Mrs. Janet Carman, a banker’s wife and mother of four children, recently bought a reconditioned player. Says she: “We just love it. Our seven-year-old twins bring in all their friends on weekends, and they sing away for hours. It’s the funniest thing to wake up on a Saturday morning and hear these wee little voices coming from the basement singing Pretty Baby.”

The idea for the player piano seems to have originated with a Frenchman named Fourneaux who patented a player operating on pneumatic principles in 1863. Through the years, they were modified and improved until — at the peak of their heyday around 1923 when 205,556 were sold in the U.S. alone — player pianos could not only play loud and soft by themselves but could reproduce every nuance of shading and expression of a Paderewski or a Gershwin (both of whom sat down at a special recording piano and cut rolls on the Duo-Art label).

The Hardman, Peck Co., which makes most of today’s new player pianos, no longer turns out electrically driven concert grands or giant uprights (people refuse to give them house space though their tone is beyond compare). They feature player spinets with foot pedals only, feel that pumping out the music is a genuine part of the nostalgia that is their stock in trade. Says one foot-pumping purist: “It gives you a sort of feeling of satisfaction . . . like natural childbirth.”

* “Pianola,” once a trademark of the Aeolian Co., long ago became a generic term for all player pianos, has been revived again recently by Hardman, Peck Co.

Lisa Fagg, granddaughter of J. Lawrence Cook, sends the following photographs, which are from the collection of his daughter, Annizella Cook Fugate.

J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph

J. Lawrence Cook

J. Lawrence Cook - click here to view enlarged photograph

J. Lawrence Cook

Annotated in JLC’s handwriting on the reverse of the above photograph:

Cook, in front of recording machine controls at Larry Givens’ factory

Julian Dyer, bulletin editor of the Player Piano Group, sends the following photograph, which is from the collection of Jack Shaylor.

J. Lawrence Cook - click to enlarge

J. Lawrence Cook in 1962

The Imperial Industrial Company
781 East 136th Street,
New York City, N.Y.

Prof. Alan Wallace sends an interesting article, which was published in the May 1966 issue of EBONY magazine, pages 125—128.

The Old Piano Roll Man

New Yorker J. Lawrence Cook
leads nostalgic revival of long-forgotten player piano

A SHUDDER swept the audience at Lincoln Center. Andre Kostelannetz was conducting the New York Philarmonic and “guest pianist” was (who’s that again) George Gershwin.

No, the Broadway composer had not been resurrected. He was simply represented by a dowdy old contraption known as the player piano. Prior to his death, Gershwin had preserved That Old Feeling
[sic] on the piano roll and his performance was now being rendered posthumously.

The event, two years ago, was a kind of eerie red-letter day in a nationwide revival of the player piano, once the rage of the twenties. Collectors are buying rolls of everything from gospel to show tunes and the strange upright instruments lend a delightfully dated atmosphere to off-beat entertainment spots. Leading this nostalgic resurgence is a retired New York postal worker, J. Lawrence Cook, who since 1920 has arranged some 20,000 rolls. Last year he issued between 200 and 300 and the market for both rolls and instruments to play them on is growing monthly. To grateful afficionadoes
[sic], Cook, is now known as “Dean of the Piano Roll.”


BACK around the mid-fifties, a recording firm sought Cook’s advice on to best present a release of Cy Corbin’s The Old Piano Roll Blues. With a disarming logic, the “dean” suggested an actual piano roll. Luckily nobody laughed. Not only was the tune a hit but the instrument itself, long confined to museums and “period” movies, began to be rediscovered.

Today the player piano has caught on with all the suddenness of Batman. Last year some 10,000 were sold, mostly by the Aeolian Music Company, Cook’s employer. Rolls are beginning to move like phonograph records and certain labels, notably Columbia and Mercury, have recorded it electronically for the regular market.

Unlike Batman, however, the player piano is anything but camp. “Sure, it’s still a curio to some,” admits Cook, “you know, the old rickey-tick-tick. But more and more people are beginning to realize that this is an actual piano.” Even in the twenties, he reminds, the player piano was a mechanically advanced instrument, capturing dynamics and other subtleties of performance. Rachmaninoff and Paderewski often used it and their rolls have been preserved. For lesser known pianists in search of an audience, it serves much the same purpose as today’s electronic recording.

Over the years, Cook and his former boss, the Imperial Company of the Bronx, were alone in preserving its technology. When others stopped production about 1930, Cook, though working at the post office, continued to serve a small afficionado
[sic] clientele with his periodic “J. Lawrence Cook Rolls.” Both pianist and technician, he has devised a means of making perforations as he plays, improving on the traditional method in which the artist performance was followed by weeks of mechanical adjustments. Cook is also an arranger and often transcribes orchestrated music to the two-keyboard instrument.

It is here, in particular, that the player piano improves on its manual cousin. “Since notes can be set before perforations are made,” says Cook, “it is possible to place any number of notes on the same roll — far more than a single pianist is able to play. The arranger can thus make a sound like a four-handed piano.”


ALONG with the discovery of the player piano has been an accompanying discovery of J. Lawrence Cook. The musician, 60, has appeared on a wide variety of TV shows, including I’ve Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, You Asked for It, The Garry Moore Show, Tonight and The CBS Six O’Clock News. In addition, he occasionally cuts rolls for motion pictures and has been consultant to several reference works on the instrument. Among the many mementoes adorning his Bronx home is a “Thank You” from actor Jack Webb, with whom he worked as technical advisor in the film, Pete Kelly’s Blues.

While new in the limelight, however, Cook is no overnight success. It was nearly 50 years ago that he first began cutting piano rolls. Moving to New York from his native Pittsburgh, he took a course in piano technique and taught himself harmony and composition. In those days, player pianos were big business and Cook broke in with U.S. Music Rolls, one of some fifty companies that flourished in the twenties. For years he was one of about 100 top U.S. arranger-perforators.

The years since have been something of a comedown, but Cook never lost faith in the instrument’s appeal. “I had a passion for the player piano,” he recalls. “I guess it lasted through thick and thin.” When the public finally began to share this passion, it must have seemed to Cook — and millions of other old-timers as if the “good old days” had come back.

played by J. Lawrence Cook

Prof. Alan Wallace sends details of a music folio titled: GEORGE M! : Player Piano Book of Ten George M. Cohan Hits with Lyrics, Styled in “Player Piano” Arrangements by J. Lawrence Cook. Laurence Rosenthal, in the foreword, presents a tribute to the skill of J. Lawrence Cook and his command in the field of music roll arranging.

click to enlarge


Player Piano Book
Ten George M. Cohan Hits with Lyrics
Styled in “Player Piano” Arrangements



ROSE (A Ring to the Name of Rose)


Arranger’s Note

Current renewed interest in the player piano is due largely to the fact that it finally rid itself of the “gadget” image, with musical capabilities limited to the production of so-called “rinky-tink” music, reminiscent of former years.

While this type of music still has its place and a considerable number of fans, it is gratifying to note that the instrument is now accepted simply as a piano that plays itself — capable of satisfactory reproducing all types of music, from nursery tunes to concerti.

Through the years the self-playing instrument and the pianist have successfully borrowed ideas from each other. Certain effects unattainable by the “live” player can be produced mechanically with mathematical precision; but such effects can be simulated manually to a very satisfying degree.

The arrangements in this folio seek to substantiate some of the above contentions. For sake of authenticity they were first recorded on rolls in the styles of their period, and then transcribed into manuscript form for publication.

J. Lawrence Cook

© Copyright MCMLXVIII by
An Affiliate of EDWARD B. MARKS MUSIC CORPORATION / 136 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019


The notion of entertaining a Broadway audience with a player-piano is certainly an unusual if not an unprecedented idea. But the phenomenon of two player-pianos performing a little “double concerto” with orchestral accompaniment is surely a first in the musical comedy theatre.

When Joe Layton, the greatly gifted director of George M!, first described to me his concept of two old-fashioned upright pianos, one on each end of the stage against the proscenium arch, being played alternately by various young people as the dramatic situation required, to accompany rehearsals, auditions, performances, or whatever, it already seemed a charming and original idea. But when he revealed how this would pay off, I was genuinely impressed with his wit and imagination. As the audience returns from the intermission, the two pianos, now illuminated by spotlights, are suddenly revealed, mechanisms exposed, as player-pianos, which burst forth, supported by the pit orchestra, in a virtuoso performance of the Entracte, a sparkling recapitulation of the principal songs from Act I.

Layton’s vision was a true one. Ever since George M!’s opening night in Detroit, no audience has ever failed to be surprised, amused, and finally delighted by the two rippling keyboards, without benefit of apparent human agency, happily pouring out Cohan’s marvelous tunes in a musical style still no less enchanting and exciting than it was in the heyday of its fashion.

Of course, the songs of George M! lend themselves entirely to the characteristic and unmistakable sound of the player-piano. The task of realizing the Entracte fell to me and to Mr. Lawrence Cook, whose name is inextricably linked with the history of the player-piano. My arrangements were designed to give the impression of a constantly shifting dialogue, with musical ideas being tossed from the piano and orchestra and back. Sometimes the pianos, instead of playing the themes, would provide a decorative and syncopated lacework as background to an orchestral rendition of a song. The complications and intricacies of these arrangements, compounded by the use of two pianos instead of one, proved to be no problem whatever for the phenomenal skill of Lawrence Cook, who faithfully captured every brilliant roulade and complex chord-cluster on the paper piano-rolls, which he executed with the effortlessness of child’s play. His own superb arrangements of the many hits from George M! included in this book only attest further to his total master of this beguiling musical idiom.

Laurence Rosenthal
Musical Supervision
“George M!”

The arrangements in this book are also available on Aeolian Piano Rolls

Roll No. 1953 — Harrigan, Rose, Popularity. Mary’s A Grand Old Name, So Long Mary

Roll No. 1954 — Give My Regards to Broadway,  You’re a Grand Old Flag, (I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy, Nellie Kelly I love
                        You, Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway.

Note: Laurence Rosenthal wrote the music for the 1975 movie “Rooster Cogburn” starring John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Prof. Alan Wallace sends this feature article from the New York Daily News, dated Thursday, 6th June 1968, page 59, column 1.

New York Daily News


By Sidney Fields

Career Rolling Along

In an ungrouchy moment critic John Chapman pointed to a credit line for the musical “George M,” which read: “Player piano music rolls prepared by J. Lawrence Cook.” Chapman said that George M. Cohan’s music on two player pianos synchronised with the orchestra was artful, highly pleasing and an amazing feat.

So I scurried over to the Aeolian Building to find Cook in a small cluttered workroom busy on his roll recording piano and punch machine. He explained happily that the challenge for “George M” was to achieve perfect coordination between the two player pianos and the orchestra.

J. Lawrence Cook at the Aeolian Company - click here to view enlarged photograph

Music Man J. Lawrence Cook

“Both pianos have a roll going but only one is playing,” he said. “I piped the music from one piano to the other.”

It must have thrilled him on opening night.

“I wasn’t even invited until after the opening. I haven’t seen the show yet.”

Composer in Own Right

Cook is a composer in his own right. Among other things he’s written a beautiful suite for full orchestra and is trying to get it heard. He is also fluent in Spanish and French, now is studying Japanese and is blissful over the resurgence of player music.

He’s been around it for 48 years and has prepared some 20,000 rolls of classics, jazz, hymns, nursery rhymes, pop and rock.

He arranges the music in his head and punches out the notes to make a master roll as he plays them on the recording piano. This takes from three to six hours. After final editing the master goes to the factory where perforating machines make the finished rolls.

“When I do rock or pop,” said Cook, now 68, “I get a recording and study it until I dig it. My training is classical.”

He has two children: Dr. Jean Lawrence Cook. professor of medicine at Albert Einstein Medical College, and Mrs. Annizella Fugate, a school teacher with three children and a Master’s degree.

Cook is from Athens, Tenn., where a monument was erected to his father, Jacob Lincoln Cook. A school also bears the elder Cook’s name. His father was a Presbyterian minister and educator. Both parents died when Cook was 3. He was raised by relatives and taught a reverence for learning the violin, piano and clarinet. At 15 he became enchanted with piano roll music, bought a hand roll perforator for $150, paying it off at $10 a month by working at menial jobs.

To keep alive he worked in the post office until he got a job with a music roll company. Player piano music boomed in the ’20’s when some 20 companies were selling 16 million rolls a year. But by 1929 it was almost dead. Cook’s boss offered to keep him on for $30 a week.

“I couldn’t make it on that, not with a wife and two children,” Cook said. “So I worked the post office midnight shift and kept recording rolls for myself at home by day.”

Refused to Record It

Twenty years later a man named Cy Cobin wrote ‘The Piano Roll Blues’ and wanted an authentic piano roll sound for it. He was told, “only one man can do it, J. Lawrence Cook.” But Cook refused to make the recording.

“I made the roll so it would be the real thing,” he said. “It sold 750,000 copies and started the player piano rolling again. They called it the new sound. How about that?”

Aeolian began making player pianos again in 1956. A few years later Cook quit the post office and became their “Recording Specialist and Special Consultant.” Four major outfits now sell about a million rolls a year.

An autographed photo of composer Percy Grainger sort of sums up what the music world thinks of Cook. The inscription reads: “To J. L. Cook in admiration for his genius in arranging and harmonization and with warm thanks for his generous and enlightening help with my free music experiments. Cordially. Percy Grainger.”

“I only taught him him how to count measures and divide notes so he could put them on rolls,” Cook said. He looked at the picture in awe. “Me help Grainger — he must have been kidding.”

 Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from the Watertown Daily Times, dated Wednesday, 12th April 1972, page 4, columns 3—7.

Watertown Daily Times, Watertown, N.Y.

Long-Gone Living Room Scene May Now Return
As The Popularity of Piano Players is Revived


It probably has little or nothing to do with the divorce rate, juvenile delinquency or other even more significant social phenomena. But a long-gone living-room scene just may be making a comeback.

According to some collectors of trivia, the expression, “the family that plays together, stays together,” dates back to the golden age of player pianos, just after World War I.

Then there were friendly gatherings around the player piano in the living-room, with everyone watching the keys automatically clatter out a ricky-tick version of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” and singing the lyrics printed on the perforated paper roll. Well, folks, the same thing is happening today, but with Burt Bacharach favorites, top-10 heavy rock hits and offerings from “Hair,” to name a few.

Player pianos appear to be enjoying a popularity exceeded only in the boom years around 1919, when more of the instruments were manufactured than ordinary pianos, say industry officials. That year, 53 per cent of the total output of pianos consisted of players, which gave forth complete arrangements of popular hit tunes of the day when you fitted a roll of the perforated paper into brackets that turned when you pumped the foot pedals.

A spokesman for the Aeolian Corp., one of the nation’s leading makers of player pianos said, “we won’t give specific figures, but right now the items are selling as fast as we can produce them.” Aeolian markets a half-dozen different brand-name player pianos that range in price from $1,000 to $2,500.

Perhaps the resurgence of the instrument’s popularity was explained by a market researcher for one of the player piano companies. “Improved radios and phonographs,” he said, “with their passive and isolated listening habits, destroyed the incentive for self-expression and the personal touch that is so rewarding in a player piano.” He added that “maybe it’s the cold electronic, age that’s creating a yen for participation in people.”

Not only are newly manufactured player pianos being purchased in increasing numbers, but collectors of rare vintasge models are persuing their hobby with great enthusiasm. One of them, Dennis Bernstein, 22, of Valley Stream, has six of the instruments in his home. Bernstein has restored most of them, including a 1925 Capitol nickelodeon.

A nickelodeon differs from a player piano not only because it operates upon insertion of a coin (they were standard equipment of pre-World War I saloons), but also because it features a banjo and a xylophone along with the piano sound. Some models also feature a mechanically operated violin.

The revitalized interest in player pianos has caused a demand for the production of player rolls. There are few experts who are familiar with the craft of adapting music to the master roll, from which production copies are made.

One of these artists is J. Lawrence Cook. For the past 52 years, Cook has been one of the country’s piano roll masters. Now in a tiny room on West 57th Street in Manhattan, he is working at a unique device he helped perfect almost a half-century ago.

The handmade master-roll cutter, an upright piano with a double keyboard, is attached to an octopus-like labyrinth of pneumatic tubes. Cook takes modern hits, shop tunes and other musical scores and plays them in piano-roll style on the master console. The machine simultaneously perforates a master roll in a coded series of punched slots.

The production rolls, identical to the master, are what go into the player piano. Player pianos function on the principal of a bellows pumping air through the perforated rolls, which in turn activate the piano mechanism.

Cook talks with pride about his ability to play in the style of Fats Waller (also known for his piano-roll arrangements), Jelly Roll Morton and other greats of another era.

“It’s a lost art from the past,” explained Cook recently, as he transcribed a popular Broadway show tune onto his machine. “I find it just as exciting today for instance, to cut songs like ‘By the Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ as I did many years ago on something like, say, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Remember that one?”

There are available dozens of new catalogs, many of them printed in an early 20th century style, listing the hundreds of newly produced piano rolls. Every conceivable type of music is represented, including rock, jazz, religious and ethnic. One of Cook’s specialties is piano rolls in the styles of Liberace and Roger Williams.

There are also to be had a spate of books giving the history and technical details of player pianos as well as many recordings of piano-roll music for those who can’t yet afford to buy a new model. There are many clubs too, made up of collectors of vintage player pianos. These issue newsletters and swap buying and selling information.

One company official estimates that there are thousands of antique instruments still hiding in attics and barns, “just waiting for someone to snap them up.” He said they often bring anywhere from $1,000 up, if in restorable condition. The new player pianos generally are equipped with foot pedals for manual operation and electric drive “if you want to dance while you listen.” And all models, naturally are usable as conventional pianos.

One company official said that even the Japanese are invading the market. “They’ll probably come out soon with a transistor model,” he commented, “and then, with a few strobe lights, we’ll be right back up to today.”

Stationary Letterhead sent as a gift to J. Lawrence Cook by Mike Meddings and a friend in 1974

Letterhead of the Imperial Industrial Company c. 1963 courtesy of Joyce Brite

In the early part of 1974 I was invited to provide the musical entertainment in the Senior Common Room at Aston University in Birmingham. At this informal gathering I featured many of Lawrence’s music rolls. The evenings music was recorded by a friend and we forwarded a cassette tape to Lawrence.

I was anxious to start a project of making my own music rolls, so I wrote to Lawrence with this in mind.  I received the following letter from him:


JLC Letterhead

Memo to: Mike

Date: 4/5/74
From: Lawrence

Subject: Tape

Dear Mike and Ed,

The tape was received yesterday. I could right
(sic) at length telling you how much I enjoyed it; but this could cause boredom, so please let me say that it was great, Great, Great!

Keep up the good work, and let’s please keep in touch, and I look forward to seeing you this summer.

Leo F. Bartels (pronounced: Bár Télls) was about my age, and we became good friends.

As you know the Lee-bu-John is a simple but very efficient device. Any mechanically-minded person can build one with proper tools.

Kindest regards to both of you and all.


P.S.  I knew Leo not just through correspondence but in person. I’ve talked with his widow several times, years ago, when I bought the last remnants of a Leeburjohn she could find in her basement.

On the 28th September 1974, the Musical Box Society International held their Silver Anniversary Convention in The Marriott Hotel, Saddle Brook, New Jersey. J. Lawrence Cook was the “Guest of Honor” at this event. Ken Vinen, a member of MBSI, had the opportunity to meet up with Lawrence and they dined together. The MBSI published a special hard cover Silver Anniversary book of several hundred pages, and Lawrence signed the flyleaf of Ken’s book. A fellow MBSI member took the photograph of Lawrence and Ken.

J. Lawrence Cook and Ken Vinen - click to enlarge

J. Lawrence Cook and Ken Vinen
28th September 1974

 played by J. Lawrence Cook

Mike's Roll Arranging and Perforating Machine

Like many others before, I was keen to try my hand at arranging and cutting my own music rolls. Using drawings of a Leabarjan Perforating Machine that I had seen in a music book, some engineering friends — notably Barry Cooper — and myself constructed a basic perforator. Over the years many improvements have been made to the machine.

Rather than import standard blank rolls, I bought several rolls of 90g sm tracing paper 1 metre wide and 30 metres long. I then asked a specialist paper merchant to cut the paper into 3 sections precisely 11¼ inches wide.

I purchased Gardner Read’s book, MUSIC NOTATION, which I found to be an excellent guide to marking up the numerous “floating” time-scales. I believe that these are an important device in the arranging of music rolls — especially when aiming to create a hand-played effect. After completing the construction of my roll cutting machine, I was eager to start perforating the first of many rolls that I would produce over the years. After a couple of weeks I finished Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and I was reasonably satisfied with the result.

I wrote to Lawrence and told him about the perforator and my first attempt at cutting a roll. In my letter I also asked him about his recollections of Jelly Roll Morton, and if he had been involved with any editing of the two known rolls “Dead Man Blues” and “Midnight Mama” that Morton had recorded for QRS at their Chicago plant in 1926. The following letter, which I received from Lawrence, contained an unexpected statement about Morton.


JLC Letterhead

April 2, 1975

Dear Mike:

So nice to receive yours of 27th March. Well, I’m in a writing mood this morning, so here goes my reply:

I’m in good health and hope you are likewise.

Congratulations on the success of your first roll cutting effort!

I never met Jelly Roll Morton in person, but I can tell you that, so far as I know, he made only one roll recording for Q.R.S.

In my judgement he was a sloppy, ear-playing pianist.

However, I think he deserved all of the fame that he gained. This being because he

(over, please)


— 2 —

definitely invented a certain style of jazz playing. I know this well, for I have transcribed quite a number of his record and band recordings for musicians wanting to study his style.

I made most of the ragtime roll recordings for Q.R.S.

About three weeks ago Ramsi, a long-time friend, spent the better part of a day in Mt. Vernon with me and my wife. It was at that time when he told me of Brian’s departure from Q.R.S. I agree with your appraisal of Brian’s arrangements.

Take care now!         
Sincerely, your friend
J. Lawrence Cook

Note: My initial reaction to Lawrence’s statement that in his judgement Morton was a sloppy, ear-playing pianist was greeted with a touch of surprise and disappointment. Morton is my hero (we all like our heroes to be matchless). However, I believe that Lawrence was referring to the difficulty of transcribing Morton’s piano performances. He could, after all, write with authority, as he was the first musician to get to grips with this assignment.

Roy Carew, close friend and benefactor of Morton, had engaged Lawrence for this project in the late 1940s. Lawrence later mailed to me several Photostat copies of his transcriptions including, Frog-I-More Rag, The Crave, The Miserere, The Naked Dance, Big Fat Ham, Winin’ Boy Blues and The Finger Breaker.

The statement by Lawrence that, so far as he knew, Morton had only made one roll recording for QRS was assumed by me that he may have been referring to the Vocalstyle roll ‘Mr. Jelly Lord,’ which they had catalogued under their re-issue programme on #Q159.

I did not continue to press Lawrence for a more qualified point on this matter. He was after all 76 years of age — had mastered many thousands of music rolls and could hardly be expected to re-call events of 50 or so years previous that he had not directly been involved with. At least Lawrence had been honest enough to admit that he had never met Morton and that this in itself convinced me that Morton must have recorded his two known rolls for QRS at their Chicago plant.

Karl Ellison sends the following article from the Buffalo Courier-Express, dated Friday, 27th June 1975, page 8.

Buffalo Courier-Express

Life Full of Holes, But Player-
Pianist Quite Happy at 70


J. Lawrence Cook is a man in his 70’s who has made more piano rolls than he can remember.

“I call myself a player-pianist,” Cook says with a sense of humor. “If they want to get sophisticated I tell ’em I’m a composer or arranger.”

Cook is an honorary member of the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Assn. (AMICA) whose annual convention opened Thursday night at the Hotel Statler Hilton.

At the QRS Music Roll factory on Niagara St., Cook talked about the art of making piano rolls, which he said is “getting holes in paper in the right place.”

3-Handed Effect

He demonstrated how a player-pianist gives the effect of three hands when knocking out a number. Chords may be sustained by pulling out stops, leaving the pianist’s hands free to roam the keyboard.

“No, it’s not cheating,” Cook said, in defense of the recording method. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have a roll that corresponds to the characteristics of the player piano.”

“All of us arrangers started out as pianists,” Cook said, adding that in making the adjustment player-pianists have to slow down their thinking.

3 Hours to 2½ Minutes

“It takes about three hours to make a fox trot of 30 feet,” Cook said. That length of piano roll is good for 2½ minutes of dancing.

Cook made piano rolls with a hand operated perforating machine around 1920, but it had only one punch, which made the recording process three times as long as now.

An artist much admired by Cook is the late James P. Johnson — their pictures are exibited side by side in the celebrities gallery at the QRS plant.

“Tiger Rag” His Best

Of his own piano rolls, Cook ranks as among his best “Tiger Rag” (“I play it once in a while at home”) and “Flying Home,” both of which owe something to the style of Art Tatum.

“When he plays one piece, that’s a whole piano course,” Cook said of Tatum.

Cook is an honored guest at the AMICA meeting. “Any time you talk about player pianos or the rolls, my name pops up,” he said.

First Roll Bought

At the QRS plant Jack Edwards, a collector of piano rolls from New York, and as such an admirer of Cook, told the player pianist that he had brought with him the first roll Cook ever made.

Edwards has 33,000 piano rolls, a collection he began when he was 4 years old (he lost a few during the Depression when his mother used them for fuel).

One he does not have is Cook’s “Dyin’ With the Blues,” but proudly shows the first roll Cook made, “The Little Red School House,” a fox trot.

As part of its convention AMICA will present a program by a live player (William Bolcom) and a singer (Joan Morris) at 8:30 Saturday night at the Riviera Theater, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda. The program is “Ragtime and the Classic Popular Song.”

Also, Greg Guertner will play the theater’s restored Wurlitzer pipe organ.

In my next letter to Lawrence I mentioned that I had been invited again to provide the musical entertainment in the Senior Common Room at Aston University and also stage a full concert in the Centre For The Arts.

I also explained that I would write to Ramsi Tick to try to persuade him to release more Jelly Roll Morton and other notable keyboard personality music rolls of the 1920s. Although QRS did have in their catalogue, what they called a “Celebrity Vault,” the contents of this small section had for many years remained static. Lawrence responded with the following letter:


JLC Letterhead

Oct. 17, 1975

Dear Mike:

Thanks for yours of 18th August.  I’m sorry for my delay in replying to same. This was due to a sickening and lingering bout that I had with the “flu,” from which I am only now recovering.

I wish you luck on getting Ramsi to issue some Jelly Roll numbers, but there is some doubt as to when or whether he will.

I admire your aim in fostering the growth and interest in Ragtime.  I think it is possible that the insistence of yourself and others may eventually motivate some action.

Thanks for the copy of your Pianola Concert program.  I found it very interesting, wish I could have been there for the sherry & buffet party.

Kindest regards

Following my November 1975 Concert at Aston University, I wrote to Ramsi Tick at QRS requesting that the “Celebrity Vault” be updated, with additions of rolls by Morton. I did receive a reply from him, which is shown below.

In my opinion, QRS never really did get to grips with what could have been an interesting project. They decided to go down a different path and leave the re-issue of ragtime and hot piano rolls to dedicated roll enthusiasts like Mike Montgomery, Ed Sprankle, Mike Schwimmer, Rob DeLand, Ed Openshaw and Don Rand.


QRS logo

January 5, 1976

Dear Mike:

Thank you for your letter of December 14 with photo-copy of Aston University review and outline of what you are doing there. Keep up the good work.

I guess we should reissue some Jelly Roll Morton rolls. We’ve avoided, up to now, reissuing recordings not originated by QRS or companies acquired by QRS.

We need friends like you and appreciate your help.


Ramsi P. Tick

J. Lawrence Cook died on Friday, 2nd April 1976. His daughter Annizella sent me the following Memorial Cards. I feel very honoured to have known him and to have shared a common interest of arranging music rolls. In my estimation he made a tremendous contribution to American music.

Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following obituary notice for J. Lawrence Cook from The New York Times, dated Monday, 5th April 1976.

The New York Times


J. Lawrence Cook, sometimes known as Piano Roll Cook because of his career as an arranger, composer and maker of the rolls for player pianos, died of a heart attack Friday at his home, 57 Esplanade Street, Mount Vernon, N.Y. He was 76 years old.

Mr. Cook continued until his death to turn out master rolls for manufacturers in various parts of the world to meet the demands of devotees and hobbyists. He retired from the Aeolian Corporation in 1972 but set up a shop in his home.

Mr. Cook was a friend of such jazz pianists as W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. Teddy Wilson was one of his pupils.

In the 1930’s, Mr. Cook was the only person kept on by Q.R.S., one of the famous old piano roll manufacturers making new recordings under his own name and various pseudonyms.

Surviving are his widow, the former Edith Bascomb; a son, Dr. Jean L. Cook; a daughter, Annizella Fugate, and three granddaughters.

Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following obituary notice for J. Lawrence Cook from the Music Educators Journal, dated November 1976, Vol. 63, No. 3, page 19, column 1.

Music Educators Journal

Composer-pianist J. Lawrence Cook died April 2, 1976, in Mt. Vernon, New York. In addition to his compositions in both the popular and symphonic areas, Cook was known for having made nearly twenty thousand piano roll recordings in the four decades that began in 1920. A writer-member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Cook was seventy-six.

Lisa A. Fagg, eldest granddaughter of J. Lawrence Cook, sends personal memories of her grandfather.

Lisa A. Fagg - click here to view enlarged photograph

Memories of Grandpa

by Lisa Fagg

I have been aware for quite some time of the existence of keen interest in my grandfather J. Lawrence Cook’s music. Ten years or so ago, I was wandering around in a huge “flea” market with a friend in New England when I heard music from a player piano coming from the far end of the lot. Even more incredibly, I heard something else, too — the unmistakable musical “voice” of Grandpa. At that point I turned to my friend and said, “That’s Grandpa” and followed my ears. Puzzled and curious she followed me. There it was — at the periphery of the field stood a huge van with a player piano in it. We stood and listened; one of Grandpa’s old “standards” was playing. I was thrilled. When I finally introduced myself as one of J. Lawrence Cook’s granddaughters, the owners of the van were as amazed as I was at this chance meeting. Apparently there is at least one “J. Lawrence Cook special interest group” in the U.S. — they collect, sell and trade JLC piano rolls. We talked for a while and that was that — but the experience has stayed with me. Since moving to the U.K. to marry, I’ve met several other enthusiasts of my Grandpa’s music; Mike Meddings (in person) here in England and Millie Gaddini and Alan Wallace (by e-mail) in the U.S. Thanks, all of you, for making my grandfather’s music available to a wider audience on the World Wide Web.

Grandpa’s Little ‘Helper’

Grandpa was always mending and modifying things. His favourite “tool” seemed to be masking tape, of all things. He seemed to think that the stuff could fix anything. He even used it to “edit” some of his Master player piano rolls — something I remember him doing quite often on the kitchen table at my grandparents home. He “read” the roll first, making editing marks with a red felt-tipped pen; red dots, indicated new holes to be punched in (using a hammer and punch for the separate holes or an Exacto knife to join up the sustained notes) and red circles around holes indicated “errant” holes that needed to be blocked with strips of masking tape. As you can imagine, as a young child I was fascinated by this work he did and he must have recognised my interest. When I was old enough to be trusted with knives and punches, he would let me do the manual part of the work giving me a roll to patch and punch whilst he edited another one. Lord knows he must have had to “check” his rolls carefully after his twelve-year-old granddaughter had been at them, but that was the sort of grandfather he was. I used to really enjoy “helping” him — much more so than helping Grandma with the washing up after dinner — and I worked very, very carefully.

He loved his music and so did I — although I’m too young (or, possibly, too “square”) to remember the Beatles early music, I DO remember the first time I heard “Penny Lane”, “Michelle” and “Eleanor Rigby” — and it wasn’t coming from Liverpool, England — I was sitting at the player piano beside Grandpa in my grandparents house in the Bronx. Grandpa and I both sat at the piano (we always sat at the piano to listen because we liked to read the words and sing together). I can still hear it all in my mind’s ear — his gruff bass-baritone and my child’s voice. He never seemed to grow weary of hearing (and singing) the same songs over and over again. It was incredible fun then and listening to Grandpa’s recorded music today takes me back to those wonderful times.

© 2001 Lisa A. Fagg

Bob Berkman, Chief Operating Officer of QRS Music Rolls Inc., sends this outstanding tribute to J. Lawrence Cook.

Bob Berkman - click here to view enlarged photograph

Tribute to J. Lawrence Cook

by Bob Berkman

I met Lawrence Cook only once, near the end of his life. My first summer at QRS coincided with his last visit there, as part of the 1975 AMICA Convention in Buffalo.

Rudy Martin and I were assigned to meet him at the airport, take him to lunch, and then deliver him to his hosts. This was really almost all the time I spent with him, because once he was whisked into the convention’s official whirl I had little access to him.

The prospect of meeting J. Lawrence Cook was exciting to me as a 20-year-old roll enthusiast. At lunch I was probably too shy to pepper him with as many questions as I would have liked, though I have since come to believe that he had long before learned to answer technical questions in simple — and sometimes unintentionally misleading — layman’s terms. After all, the average fan was unlikely to understand what he really did and how he did it. And no matter what the listener’s level of understanding, a lifetime of craft could not possibly have been explained over a plate of spaghetti.

Granted both his field and his audience were limited. His primary job was to produce commercially satisfactory arrangements of American popular songs, in step with or in anticipation of demand as monitored by his employer, and this fairly narrow focus of material was intended only for use on the player piano — a medium that faded from the consumer mainstream early in his career.

Nevertheless, from his first QRS roll in 1921 until his last in the early 1970s, the quantity and quality are remarkable. An important part of his mastery lay in his ability to minimize the player piano’s liabilities while exploiting its capabilities, drawing variety and color from a seemingly monochromatic palette. As you follow his work from his early Leabarjan-made stride arrangements to his 40’s and 50’s masterpieces, you can hear him thinking less pianistically and more orchestrally, and with increasingly sophisticated harmonies. The economical voicing in his arrangements, the clarity and musical sense of his lines, the very deliberate choices of note durations, and the keen sense of form all reveal high levels of both craft and musicianship. And all of this is even more remarkable when one considers the sluggishness and recalcitrance of the machinery he used.

Twenty-five years since having lunch with J. Lawrence Cook, I have come to understand that what he did and how he did it could not have been adequately explained by any amount of conversation with him. His work is his testament, and the more it is examined and enjoyed, the more his stature grows.

© 2002 Bob Berkman

Anthony J. Romano sends this outstanding tribute to J. Lawrence Cook, together with memories of his time with Lawrence at the U.S. Post Office, and a visit to the Imperial Industrial Company in the Bronx, New York City.

Anthony J. Romano - click here to view enlarged photograph

The Amazing Mr. Cook

by Tony Romano

In September of 1946, I began my third year of high school at the School of Industrial Art in New York City, majoring in Photography.  During my summer vacation, I had worked at a U.S. Post Office substation near Columbus Circle in the city.

Usually, when coming to work, I would see a black man, about forty years old, unloading large canvas mail sacks on the Post Office receiving dock.  He always smiled, waved and said hello to me. I was rather startled to see that he wore a large pistol strapped to his belt as he worked.

During lunch break one day, I happened to sit at his table and he introduced himself as Lawrence Cook. When I asked why he wore the gun, he told me that Postal regulations required all dispatchers to be armed, because many U.S. Mail sacks contained cash or other valuable items.

We often ate lunch together, and during our many conversations he told me that he also worked in the Bronx at night and on weekends, making music rolls for player pianos.  The next year, 1947, I would finish four years of study in photography, but I needed to complete a portfolio of my photographic work in order to graduate.  His part-time job sounded so interesting and unusual that I summoned the courage to ask him if he would allow me do a photograph essay of the process to use for my graduation portfolio.

Mr. Cook seemed pleased at my request and promised to ask the factory owner for permission for me to come to the factory and take pictures of him making player piano rolls, and also to write a description about how they are made.  He told me that although player piano roll sales had fallen sharply since the 1920s and 1930s to a fraction of their former activity, there was still a steady demand for them.  One company in California was producing music rolls for the West Coast area, while his company made them for the East Coast.

When Mr. Cook shared my request with factory owner, the owner felt that the market would not support any more competition and so was anxious to avoid publicity.  He agreed to let me take photos and write my story on the condition that the material would be used only for my school requirements.  He also asked me to give him all my negatives, prints and writings after I graduated. I agreed to these terms and a short time later, on a Saturday afternoon, Mr. Cook and I visited the factory in the Bronx.

As arranged, I brought along my camera, film, and flash equipment to the plant in a worn brick building situated in an older, industrial part of South Bronx.  Since it was a weekend, the parking lot and building were deserted, but Mr. Cook had keys to the place, as he usually worked there by himself after the other workers had gone home for the day.

The manufacturing floor contained a lot of machinery, some of which appeared to be printing presses, but most of the other equipment looked strange to me.  All of the machinery looked well maintained and many were loaded with rolls of white paper. I had the impression of an old time newspaper pressroom where the workers had knocked off for the day, leaving everything ready to start again when they returned.

Mr. Cook took me to his work area located in a room at the front part of the building, closed off from the rest of the factory.  Inside of the room were more rolls of paper and boxes of wooden spools. Also, I saw several odd looking, stripped down, pianos with most of the inside piano mechanisms exposed.  There were many electric wires tubes, gears, electric motors installed in the bottom of the pianos.

Mr. Cook sat down at one of the modified pianos and placed some sheet music on the music shelf of the piano.  He then placed a spool of paper in the supply spool holder, mounted on a drive unit, and attached the leading end to a take up spool on the lower part of the drive just above the music shelf.  He explained that roll of paper he was using was a thicker grade, almost like card stock, and heavier than paper used for finished music rolls. He called this “master stock” and said that when he pressed on the piano keys, a series of perforations would be punched into the master spool.

He turned on the power switch and as I heard the electric motor turning, paper began scrolling down front the supply spool to the take-up spool, at a slow and even speed.  As he played, I could hear the notes being sounded and see holes being made in the master roll, just as he had described, but it seemed so strange to me because the music was being played at a slow rate of speed.  Mr. Cook told me that he was recording the score at half the actual playing speed of a finished music roll. It was difficult to concentrate on taking pictures because I did not understand the logic behind what he was doing.

While I shot the photographs of Mr. Cook making recordings, he would occasionally stop the scrolling of the roll, back it up, and place masking tape over some of the perforations.  He would then restart the scrolling and place new holes where the old ones had been.  He explained that this was his method of adding or removing erroneous notes.  When he reached the end of the roll, he rewound it to the beginning, and again keyed in more perforations in the same scrolling paper roll. When he was finished, he rewound the master roll again to the beginning and turned up the speed of the drive mechanism. I was amazed to hear the music playing normally and see so many keys on the keyboard moving up and down as if played by invisible fingers.  But what really astonished me was that it sounded just as if two people were playing different parts of the same music at the same time.

Mr. Cook then took the completed master roll out to the factory floor and turned on two machines. On the first, he mounted the master spool.  On the second one he placed a spool of blank music roll paper.  When the two units were turned on, I saw perforations from the master roll being rapidly duplicated onto the roll of paper in the second machine.  All the time this was being done, Mr. Cook filled me in on what was happening, so that I could write it down to use with pictures that I had been taking. Mr. Cook explained that other people performed additional mass production operations later on to add lyrics and other printed information before rolls were completed, boxed and shipped out to customers.

After packing my camera and equipment, we left the factory and went to Mr. Cook’s home located a few blocks from the plant.  On the way there, he told me about his third occupation, which was preparing scores for musical groups. He offered to let me take pictures and write about this process as well.

The part of his home I visited was a very nice first floor residence, in a well-kept quiet neighborhood. No one was at home at the time and we went into a neat, comfortable living room furnished with a couch, chairs and an expensive combined radio and phonograph, enclosed in a polished, dark wood cabinet.

Taking a pad of blank music paper, Mr. Cook seated himself in front of the console, turned it on and placed a 78 r.p.m. record of popular music on the turntable.  As the music began to play, he adjusted the volume and he began writing musical notes on the music lines of the blank paper. He explained that first, he was writing down the trumpet notes.  At the end of the recording, he again replayed the same record and using a new sheet, began writing notes for the next instrument. He continued this until he had written the parts for each instrument contained on that record.

He did this so that he could provide each musician with their own part of the score enabling the group to play the music contained on the phonograph record.  I had never seen or heard of anyone being able to perform this feat.  And he did so with no more effort than that of a person writing a letter.  I’m still amazed to think that someone could have the ability to listen to a phonograph record and isolate what each musician is playing.  But that’s exactly what he did, as I witnessed on that unforgettable day.

My project, titled “The Amazing Mr. Cook” received an Outstanding Achievement Award at my graduation. My only regret is that, because I kept my word and gave the pictures and essay back as promised, I do not have those items today to help me relive that wonderful experience.

Now, after so many years have passed, I can look back and truly appreciate the kindness and generosity of this talented man.  He took part of his weekend to show me a brand new world, knowing in advance that as a seventeen-year-old student, I could not repay him for his time and effort. He also knew that the pictures and writing would not be made public, so he would receive no compensation, recognition or acclaim.  He was just trying to help me meet my requirements for graduation.

I have been fortunate enough to find several copies of piano rolls that contain the label “J. Lawrence Cook” and I keep them in memory of him.

© 2003 Anthony J. Romano

Note: Elsewhere on this page, readers will note that some articles state that J. Lawrence Cook worked at the U.S. Post Office on the night shift. However, during the time that Tony knew him (1946-1947) he worked full-time at the U.S. Post Office during the day and part-time at the Imperial Industrial Company during the evening and weekends.

International jazz pianist and Jelly Roll Morton devotee Butch Thompson, sends this outstanding article, which pays tribute to J. Lawrence Cook’s transcribing skills.

Butch Thompson - click here to view enlarged photograph

J. Lawrence Cook on Jelly Roll Morton

by Butch Thompson

Writing in the Jazz Record of October 1947, Roy J. Carew announced that he had published Jelly Roll Morton’s Frog-I-More Rag, calling it “the finest example of a published rag that has appeared in many years.”  “It is,” he wrote, “the first time, to my knowledge, that any Morton number has ever been published exactly as he played it, note for note, from introduction to final bar.”

This limited edition publication was transcribed by J. Lawrence Cook.  Carew could not have found anyone more qualified for the job, and over the next several years their work together resulted in a portrait of the Morton style that was not only the first of its kind, but remarkably accurate.

In a letter to Mike Meddings in 1975, Cook remembered Morton as a “sloppy, ear-playing pianist. However, I think he deserved all of the fame that he gained.  This being because he definitely invented a certain style of jazz playing.”  In other words, Jelly Roll Morton was a true original, and J. Lawrence Cook knew it.

In fact, Morton’s playing was unlike that of any other jazz pianist.  Some of this comes from intangibles — his uniquely ringing touch is impossible to imitate — but some of it can be analyzed by careful transcription of his playing, and the Cook transcriptions offer some wonderful insight.

A word about the transcription process itself will not go amiss.  Beginning the work as he did in the early 1940s, Cook had to use a turntable for playback.  This was a clumsy business, even with the most precise tone arm of the time.  Repeated hearings of short fragments were extremely difficult. Add to this the technical limitations of the recordings themselves, and things are even more subjective.  Even on the best piano recordings, it is often very difficult to distinguish what is actually played.

All of this would make Cook’s work very tricky.  And because of the unique aspects of the Morton style, he would have to listen hard.  Much of what he would hear simply was not standard practice.

Examples exist of Cook’s work on 22 different Morton performances. These include full transcriptions as well as edited “arrangements” and some fragments such as Benny Frenchy’s Defeat, Discordant Jazz, and Sweet Jazz Music, the latter all taken from Morton’s celebrated Library of Congress recordings. A number of the unpublished pieces can be found at the Historic New Orleans Collection, most notably superb versions of Creepy Feeling (the 1938 Jazz Man recording) and Sweetheart O’ Mine (the 1926 Vocalion).

The very dedicated Roy Carew published eight full-length pieces in single sheet music format, including Frog-I-More Rag (1947), Mamie’s Blues (1948), Buddy Bolden’s Blues (1950), Winin’ Boy Blues (1950), The Crave (1950), The Miserere (1950), Naked Dance (1950) and Big Fat Ham (1956.)

A close look at some of these published pieces is in order.  First, it should be pointed out that Cook’s role was not always simply to transcribe, but at times also to edit. This editing ranges from minor changes to more extensive overhauling of what Morton actually played.  It seems clear that Cook (and possibly Carew) felt the need to “clean up” certain aspects of Morton’s playing.  A very obvious example is Naked Dance, taken from the 1939 General recording, in which Cook has changed a number of D flat octaves in the bass to more “correct” E flats. Whether Morton had played these “wrong” notes intentionally is a matter for debate — he had used the same jarring bass pattern to make a deliberate point at the Library of Congress. Cook’s idea, however, was probably that the more correct bass line would have a better chance to pass muster with people who might buy sheet music. Whatever the verdict, this isn’t a major change, and in fact Naked Dance, played as transcribed by Cook, it sounds very much like the recording.  It is not, however, an exact transcription in every detail.

Among the other published pieces, The Crave is remarkably close to the General recording, which is its model.  There is much to learn here, beginning with the introduction, where we notice in the first bar that Morton does not always put the melody on top.  During the first strain in D minor, the melody shifts frequently from the top of the right hand — the little finger, playing in octaves — to the bottom, the thumb, with chiming thirds and sixths voiced above it. This is a very important key to the Morton style, in which something very much like sleight of hand seems always to be at work.

There can be no better example of this melodic trickery than the final sixteen bars of The Miserere, which is actually a medley of two popular themes from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Morton plays through 16 bars of The Anvil Chorus twice, the second time in a tour de force of inspired improvising. Again, he combines ringing octave passages with smaller intervals in which the melody moves from top to bottom and back.  At times we seem to hear at least two improvised lines at once, much like the freewheeling collective improvisation of a New Orleans band.

Due to the inaccurate pitch of the Library of Congress material as it was originally heard on record, a result of the erratic recording process itself, Cook’s transcription of The Miserere is a full step lower than Morton’s key. This does not detract from his considerable accomplishment.  Another fine Library of Congress transcription is the “stomp” version of Maple Leaf Rag, which Cook pitched in F major — a full minor third lower than where it was actually played.

Morton fans have long known of his requirement that the true jazz pianist should imitate a jazz band.  With his transcriptions, Cook managed to unravel Morton’s method for this process.  The published version of Buddy Bolden’s Blues shows how Morton used the same kind of polyphonic right-hand playing, combined with two-handed, arpeggiated flourishes, at slow tempos.  Perhaps the best example of this kind of playing at slower tempos is the unpublished Sweet Jazz Music, two improvised choruses loosely based on the verse of Mr. Jelly Lord.

By listening so hard and so carefully, J. Lawrence Cook managed to put at least a part of the Jelly Roll Morton magic on paper.  This was a tremendous accomplishment.

© 2003 Butch Thompson

Note: Also see entries of J. Lawrence Cook’s transcriptions and arrangements on the Jelly Roll Morton Copyrights & Compositions page.



The Billings Rollography — Volume #5 : QRS Pianists, 1934-1994, pp. 70-72.


Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz — by Teddy Wilson, with Arie Ligthart and Humphrey van Loo, Foreword by Benny Goodman, Cassell, London and New York, 1996, 179 pp.


Who’s Who in Colored America — A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 4th edition 1933—1937, edited and published by Thomas Yenser, 2317 Newkirk Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, page 133. Courtesy of Steven Townsend and Prof. Alan Wallace.

AW 1

The Chicago Defender — Saturday, 4th June 1921, page 7. Courtesy of Prof. Alan Wallace.

AR 1

Adam Ramet — Letter and information to Mike Meddings, 5th February 2005.

BB 1

Bob Berkman — Letter and information to Mike Meddings, 1st February 2005.

BB 2

Bob Berkman — Letter and information to Mike Meddings, 31st March 2008.

JF 1

John Farrell — Letter and Jean Lawrence Cook essay to Mike Meddings, 4th March 2002, as an “Afterword” for the ABC Television Show : You Asked For It.


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e-mail Mike Meddings

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