I’m willing to bet that almost everybody reading this has at some point in their childhood teasingly accused someone of giving them ‘cooties’ — or has been on the other end, as the one being accused.
It’s an old insult that dates back for a number of generations, but most of the kids using the term probably don’t even know exactly what they’re describing. For the record, most authorities feel that the term was first used to describe various bugs and parasites – especially lice – that World War I soldiers encountered in trenches. However, it didn’t take long for it to become a catchall word for any kind of bad, transferable thing — and something for kids to use to tease each other.
The word’s use became so popular among kids that a game was created in the late 1940′s, one that featured creepy-looking plastic bugs. I remember having fun with it when I was a kid, and it must have been pretty popular because variations of that game are still around today. In fact, you could probably make a case that it was the forerunner of many of today’s most popular games and toys — the kind that kids love because they’re creepy and/or disgusting.
But even though I enjoyed the game as a kid, my favorite cootie was a musician – Charles ‘Cootie’ Williams – who was one of the best of the early big band trumpeters, and was especially known for his inventive use of the plunger mute. His improvisational skills and style of play still serve as an inspiration for modern artists like Wynton Marsalis.
Cootie Williams grew up in Alabama, and as he reached his teens the self-taught trumpeter began appearing in jazz groups in the Mobile area, at one point playing alongside future sax legend Lester Young in the Young Family Band. By the late 1920′s he was old enough – barely – to move to New York as part of Alonzo Ross’ Syncopators, and after a couple of other jobs, began a long and important association with Duke Ellington. Although the volatile Cootie could be a handful, Ellington loved him and kept him as a featured player for the next decade, even including songs such as “Tutti For Cootie” in the band’s songbook.
By the late 1930′s Cootie was getting restless, and a guest spot in Benny Goodman’s all-star band for the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 probably helped pave the way. By 1940 he’d joined Benny’s regular band — to the outrage of jazz purists at that time, who felt that Benny was too commercial.
But Cootie soon moved on again, choosing to spend his time leading various groups of his own. That would be his pattern for the next couple of decades, although he did join up again with Ellington in the 1960′s and continued to play with the band even after Duke’s death.
Cootie pretty much retired by the late 1970′s and died in 1985. His career had spanned six decades and he’d worked with many of the greats, including Charlie Parker, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, and Thelonius Monk (with whom he co-wrote the classic jazz piece, “Round Midnight.”) And even though there’s lots of information around about the musical side of Cootie Williams, the origin of his nickname seems to be a mystery. But he’ll always be my favorite Cootie.