Cook was born to middle class parents in Washington D.C. on January 27th, 1869. While in Chattanooga living with his grandfather at the age of 13, Cook first heard Black Folk Music. Two years later he would travel to Oberlin College in Ohio to study classical violin.
With the help of sponsored recitals, he would amass enough funds to continue his study of classical music abroad, and from 1887 to 1889 Cook learned under Joseph Joachim, a famous violinist and peer of Brahms at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik.
Though he was classically trained, he could never find much work in this avenue of music. His earliest composition, Scenes from the Opera of Uncle Tom's Cabin, intended for performance at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 never saw play.
Because of this lack of recognition or employment, Cook turned instead to producing more popular types of music. His first big success was the musical Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk, the first Broadway musical with an all black cast. He would continue to rise to a form of prominence as the new century developed, producing influential Broadway pieces such as The Sons of Ham (1901) and Abyssinia (1906). He would also stand as a mentor to notable black artists such as Duke Elliot and singer Eva Jessye.
When the pursuit of his classical career was stymied, Cook brought his exceptional talent to bear on popular music, perhaps paving the way for the marriage of popular spirit and classical complexity which became jazz. Either as precursor to jazz or in its own right, Cook's music deserves close attention.