William Grant Still
was an African-American classical composer who wrote more than 150 compositions. He was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He is often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi
Woodville is a town in and the county seat of Wilkinson County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 1,192 at the 2000 census.The Woodville Republican, a weekly newspaper founded in 1823, is the oldest surviving business in Mississippi.-Geography:Woodville is located at .According to...
. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872–1927) and William Grant Still (1871–1895), who was also a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader. His father William Grant Still Sr. died when his infant son was 3 months old. All are descendants of the famous 19th century abolitionist William Still
William Still was an African-American abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, writer, historian and civil rights activist....
Carrie Lena Fambro Still took her boy to Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock is the capital and the largest city of the U.S. state of Arkansas. The Metropolitan Statistical Area had a population of 699,757 people in the 2010 census...
, where she taught high school English for 33 years. She met and married Charles B. Shepperson, who nurtured his stepson William's musical interests by taking him to operettas and buying Red Seal
RCA Red Seal Records is a classical music label and is now part of Sony Masterworks.The Red Seal label was begun in 1902 by the Gramophone Company in the United Kingdom and was quickly picked up by its United States affiliate, the Victor Talking Machine Company, and its president, Eldridge R. Johnson...
recordings of classical music, which the boy greatly enjoyed. The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour. Still grew up in Little Rock, and started violin
The violin is a string instrument, usually with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest, highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the viola and cello....
lessons at age 15. He taught himself to play the clarinet
The clarinet is a musical instrument of woodwind type. The name derives from adding the suffix -et to the Italian word clarino , as the first clarinets had a strident tone similar to that of a trumpet. The instrument has an approximately cylindrical bore, and uses a single reed...
The saxophone is a conical-bore transposing musical instrument that is a member of the woodwind family. Saxophones are usually made of brass and played with a single-reed mouthpiece similar to that of the clarinet. The saxophone was invented by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1846...
The oboe is a double reed musical instrument of the woodwind family. In English, prior to 1770, the instrument was called "hautbois" , "hoboy", or "French hoboy". The spelling "oboe" was adopted into English ca...
, double bass
The double bass, also called the string bass, upright bass, standup bass or contrabass, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra, with strings usually tuned to E1, A1, D2 and G2...
The cello is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is a member of the violin family of musical instruments, which also includes the violin, viola, and double bass. Old forms of the instrument in the Baroque era are baryton and viol .A person who plays a cello is...
The viola is a bowed string instrument. It is the middle voice of the violin family, between the violin and the cello.- Form :The viola is similar in material and construction to the violin. A full-size viola's body is between and longer than the body of a full-size violin , with an average...
, and showed a great interest in music. His maternal grandmother sang African-American spirituals to him. At age 16 he graduated from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock.
His mother wanted him to go to medical school, so Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University
Wilberforce University is a private, coed, liberal arts historically black university located in Wilberforce, Ohio. Affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans...
, a historically black college in Ohio. Still became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi
Kappa Alpha Psi is a collegiate Greek-letter fraternity with a predominantly African American membership. Since the fraternity's founding on January 5, 1911 at Indiana University Bloomington, the fraternity has never limited membership based on color, creed or national origin...
fraternity. He conducted the university band, learned to play various instruments, and started to compose and to do orchestrations.
Still was awarded scholarships to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music
The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, located on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, was founded in 1865 and is the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States. Students of Oberlin Conservatory enter a very broad network within the music world, as the school's alumni...
with Friedrich Lehmann and with George Whitefield Chadwick
George Whitefield Chadwick was an American composer. Along with Horatio Parker, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Edward MacDowell, he was a representative composer of what can be called the New England School of American composers of the late 19th century—the generation before Charles Ives...
. He also studied with the modern composer Edgard Varèse
Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, , whose name was also spelled Edgar Varèse , was an innovative French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States....
In 1918, Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. Between 1919 and 1921, Still worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy's band and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle
Noble Sissle was an American jazz composer, lyricist, bandleader, singer and playwright.-Early life:...
and Eubie Blake
James Hubert Blake was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. In 1921, Blake and long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans...
's musical Shuffle Along
Shuffle Along is the first major successful African American musical. Written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the musical premiered on Broadway in 1921.-Plot:...
Later in the twenties, he served as the arranger of Yamekraw
, a "Negro Rhapsody" composed by the noted Harlem Stride pianist, James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson was an American pianist and composer...
In the 1930s Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison
Willard Robison was an American composer of popular song. Born in Shelbina, Missouri, his songs reflect a rural, melancholy theme steeped in Americana. Their warm style has drawn comparison to Hoagy Carmichael...
's Deep River Hour
, and Paul Whiteman
Paul Samuel Whiteman was an American bandleader and orchestral director.Leader of the most popular dance bands in the United States during the 1920s, Whiteman's recordings were immensely successful, and press notices often referred to him as the "King of Jazz"...
's Old Gold Show
, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts and in 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra.
In 1934, Still was the recipient of his first Guggenheim Fellowship and it was then that he began work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steele.
In 1949 his opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...
, originally completed in 1939, about Jean Jacques Dessalines and Haiti
Haiti , officially the Republic of Haiti , is a Caribbean country. It occupies the western, smaller portion of the island of Hispaniola, in the Greater Antillean archipelago, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Ayiti was the indigenous Taíno or Amerindian name for the island...
, was performed by the New York City Opera
The New York City Opera is an American opera company located in New York City.The company, called "the people's opera" by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, was founded in 1943 with the aim of making opera financially accessible to a wide audience, producing an innovative choice of repertory, and...
. It was the first opera by an African-American to be performed by a major company. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still's works were performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
The Berlin Philharmonic, German: , formerly Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester , is an orchestra based in Berlin, Germany. In 2006, a group of ten European media outlets voted the Berlin Philharmonic number three on a list of "top ten European Orchestras", after the Vienna Philharmonic and the...
, the London Symphony Orchestra
The London Symphony Orchestra is a major orchestra of the United Kingdom, as well as one of the best-known orchestras in the world. Since 1982, the LSO has been based in London's Barbican Centre.-History:...
, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra
The claims to be the oldest classical orchestra in Japan, having been founded in Nagoya in 1911. It moved to Tokyo in 1938 and has some 166 members as of 2005....
, and the BBC Orchestra. He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national United States television when Bayou Legend,
originally penned in 1941, premiered on PBS. Additionally, he was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Companay.
Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles , with a population at the 2010 United States Census of 3,792,621, is the most populous city in California, USA and the second most populous in the United States, after New York City. It has an area of , and is located in Southern California...
, where he arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven
Pennies from Heaven is a 1936 musical comedy film starring Bing Crosby and featuring Louis Armstrong in a supporting role. The movie was directed by Norman Z. McLeod and the screenplay was written by Jo Swerling from a story by William Rankin based on the novel The Peacock Feather by Katherine...
(the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby
Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby was an American singer and actor. Crosby's trademark bass-baritone voice made him one of the best-selling recording artists of the 20th century, with over half a billion records in circulation....
and Madge Evans
Madge Evans was an American stage and film actress. She began her career as a child performer and model.-Child model and stage actress:...
) and Lost Horizon
(the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman
Ronald Charles Colman was an English actor.-Early years:He was born in Richmond, Surrey, England, the second son and fourth child of Charles Colman and his wife Marjory Read Fraser. His siblings included Eric, Edith, and Marjorie. He was educated at boarding school in Littlehampton, where he...
, Jane Wyatt
Jane Waddington Wyatt was an American actress perhaps best known for her role as the housewife and mother on the television comedy Father Knows Best, and as Amanda Grayson, the human mother of Spock on the science fiction television series Star Trek...
and Sam Jaffe
Sam Jaffe was an American actor, teacher, musician and engineer. In 1951, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Asphalt Jungle and appeared in other classic films such as Ben-Hur and The Day the Earth Stood Still...
). For Lost Horizon
, he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin
Dimitri Zinovievich Tiomkin was a Russian-born Hollywood film score composer and conductor. He is considered "one of the giants of Hollywood movie music." Musically trained in Russia, he is best known for his westerns, "where his expansive, muscular style had its greatest impact." Tiomkin...
. Still was also hired to arrange the music for the film Stormy Weather
Stormy Weather is a 1943 American musical film produced and released by 20th Century Fox. The film is one of two major Hollywood musicals produced in 1943 with primarily African-American casts, the other being MGM's Cabin in the Sky, and is considered a time capsule showcasing some of the top...
, but left the assignment after a few weeks due to artistic disagreements.
Legacy and honors
- William Grant Still received two Guggenheim Fellowship
Guggenheim Fellowships are American grants that have been awarded annually since 1925 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those "who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." Each year, the foundation makes...
- He was awarded honorary doctorates from Oberlin College
Oberlin College is a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio, noteworthy for having been the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit female and black students. Connected to the college is the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the oldest continuously operating...
, Wilberforce University, Howard University
Howard University is a federally chartered, non-profit, private, coeducational, nonsectarian, historically black university located in Washington, D.C., United States...
, Bates College
Bates College is a highly selective, private liberal arts college located in Lewiston, Maine, in the United States. and was most recently ranked 21st in the nation in the 2011 US News Best Liberal Arts Colleges rankings. The college was founded in 1855 by abolitionists...
, the University of Arkansas
The University of Arkansas is a public, co-educational, land-grant, space-grant, research university. It is classified by the Carnegie Foundation as a research university with very high research activity. It is the flagship campus of the University of Arkansas System and is located in...
, Pepperdine University
Pepperdine University is an independent, private, medium-sized university affiliated with the Churches of Christ. The university's campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean in unincorporated Los Angeles County, California, United States, near Malibu, is the location for Seaver College, the School of...
, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...
, and the University of Southern California
The University of Southern California is a private, not-for-profit, nonsectarian, research university located in Los Angeles, California, United States. USC was founded in 1880, making it California's oldest private research university...
- He was posthumously awarded the 1982 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters
The Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters is a privately funded foundation created to recognize annually the greatest accomplishments in art, music, literature, and photography among Mississippians. The idea was conceived by, among others, former Mississippi Governor William Winter, Dr. Cora...
award for music composition for his opera A Bayou Legend.
- From the Land of Dreams (1924, believed lost until 1997)
- Levee Land (1925)
- From the Black Belt (1926)
- La Guiablese, Ballet (1927)
- Sahdji, Ballet (1930)
- Africa (1930)
- Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American" (1930)
- A Deserted Plantation (1933)
- Blue Steel Opera (1934)
- Symphony in G Minor (1937)
- Lenox Avenue, for radio announcer, chorus, & orch. (1937)
- Seven Traceries (1939)
- "And They Lynched him on a Tree" (1940)
- Miss Sally's Party, Ballet (1940)
- Can'tcha line 'em, for orch. (1940)
- Old California, for orch. (1941)
- Troubled Island
Troubled Island is an American opera in three acts composed by William Grant Still , with a libretto begun by poet Langston Hughes and completed by Verna Arvey...
Opera, produced 1949 (1937–39)
- A Bayou Legend
A Bayou Legend is an American opera composed by William Grant Still , with a libretto by his wife and frequent collaborator, Verna Arvey...
- A Southern Interlude, Opera (1942)
- Incantation and Dance, for oboe & pf.
- In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1943)
- Suite for Violin & Piano, including the movement later arranged for String Orchestra as Mother and Child (1943)
- Festive Overture (1944)
- Poem for Orchestra (1944)
- Symphony No.5 , "Western Hemisphere" (1945)
- Wailing Women, for soprano and chorus (1946)
- Symphony No. 4, "Autochthonous" (1947)
- Grief, originally titled by Still as Weeping Angel (1953)
- Danzas de Panama (Dances of Panama) Made up of three movements (1953)
- The Little Song That Wanted to Be a Symphony (1954)
- Little Red Schoolhouse (1957)
- The American Scene (1957)
- Ennanga (1958)
- Highway 1 U.S.A., opera (1963)
- Janower, David, "The Choral Works of William Grant Still", in The Choral Journal, May 1995. http://www.albany.edu/music/docs.music/materials/Grant_Still.pdf
- Reef, Catherine. (2003). William Grant Still: African American Composer. Morgan Reynolds. ISBN 1-931798-11-7
- Sewell, George A., and Margaret L. Dwight (1984). William Grant Still: America's Greatest Black Composer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi
- Smith, Catherine Parsons. (2000). William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21543-5
- Soll, Beverly. (2005) "I Dream A World: The Operas of William Grant Still." Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-789-9
- Southern, Eileen. (1984). "William Grant Still - Trailblazer." Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
- Still, Verna Arvey. (1984). In One Lifetime. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.
- Still, Judith Anne, Michael J. Dabrishus, and Carolyn L. Quin. William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1996.
- Still's Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American"
- Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer who achieved such success that he was once called the "African Mahler".-Early life and education:...
, an earlier Anglo-African composer whom Still greatly admired
- List of African American firsts