Throughout his years with Ellington, and on many occasions under his own name, Cootie consistently displayed a vigorous command of his instrument. Whether playing the muted colourful compositions of Ellington, or playing in the full-throated manner that reflected his admiration for Louis Armstrong, the distinctive trumpet playing of Cootie Williams remains one of the lasting joys of jazz.
He was born, Charles Melvin Williams, in Mobile, Alabama, on 10 July 1911. As a small child, he played various instruments in school bands but then took up the trumpet on which he was largely self-taught. He was barely into his teens when he began playing professionally. Among the bands with which he played in these years, the mid 1920s, was the band run by the family of Lester Young. He continued to play in territory bands, mainly in the south, including that led by Alonzo Ross. It was with this band that he played in New York in early 1928, choosing almost at once to quit the band and move on to higher profile engagements. In that same summer, he recorded with James P. Johnson, then with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson, and early the following year he was hired by Ellington to replace Bubber Miley. This, Cootie's first spell in Ellington’s orchestra, was to last for 11 years.