WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895 - 1978)
The life and career of the African-American composer William Grant Still qualifies as the quintessential American “success story.” Often referred to as the “dean of African-American composers,” Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11, 1895, to a family of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch blood. Still’s father, the town bandmaster, died when William was three, precipitating a move to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Still’s mother was a teacher. There Still had his first musical experience, studying the violin. At his mother’s urging he began medical studies but dropped out as music exerted a stronger pull. Music study at Oberlin was interrupted by naval service in World War I. After the war, Still moved to New York, where he worked as an arranger for several popular performers including W.C. Handy (composer of the immortal St Louis Blues) and Artie Shaw, whose hit, Frenesi, he orchestrated. Still gained immeasurable experience playing the oboe in Broadway pit orchestras while studying composition with the conservative George Chadwick and the ultra-modernist Edgar Varèse. Still arrived in New York at the perfect time, actively participating in the cultural awakening of African-Americans in the 1920s known as the “Harlem Renaissance”. His attention turned to classical composition for good in the late 1920s. A move to Los Angeles in 1930 to arrange for Paul Whiteman expanded his horizons into film and radio, initiating his compositional maturity and most prolific period. That same year saw the creation of his Symphony No. 1 ‘Afro-American,’ which established and sustained his reputation, remaining his most popular and frequently recorded work.
Like many African-Americans of his generation, Still achieved many ‘firsts’: first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra (1935, New York Philharmonic, Afro- American); first to conduct a major orchestra (1936, Los Angeles Philharmonic); first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South (1955, New Orleans Philharmonic); first to have an opera produced by a major company (1949, Troubled Island, New York City Opera), and first to have an opera broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981, A Bayou Legend, PBS). Still received many honors including the Guggenheim fellowship, honorary doctorates from Oberlin among others, and the key to his home state in 1975. He died in Los Angeles on December 3, 1978.
© David Ciucevich, Jr.