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Often referred to as the "Dean of Afro-American Composers", Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known primarily for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930), which was, until 1950, the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.
Of note, Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his 1st 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.
Due to his close association and collaboration with prominent African-American literary and cultural figures, Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement.
William Grant Still, Jr. was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi.:15 He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro (1872-1927) and William Grant Still Sr:5 (1871-1895). His father was a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader.:5 William Grant Still Sr. died when his infant son was three months old.:5
Still's mother moved with him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught high school English.:6 She met and in 1904 married Charles B. Shepperson, who nurtured his stepson William's musical interests by taking him to operettas and buying Red Seal recordings of classical music, which the boy greatly enjoyed.:6 The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour. His maternal grandmother Anne Fambro sang African-American spirituals to him.:6, 12
William Grant Still Residence at 1262 South Victoria Avenue, 2012
Still started violin lessons in Little Rock at the age of 15. He taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, and showed a great interest in music. At 16 years old, he graduated from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock.:3
His mother wanted him to go to medical school, so Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio. Still became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He conducted the university band, learned to play various instruments, and started to compose and to do orchestrations. He left Wilberforce without graduating.:7
Upon receiving a small amount of money left to him by his father, he began studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Still worked for the school assisting the janitor, along with a few other small jobs outside of the school, yet still struggled financially. When Professor Lehmann asked Still why he wasn't studying composition, Still told him honestly that he couldn't afford to, leading to George Andrews agreeing to teach him composition without charge. He also studied privately with the modern French composer Edgard Varèse and the American composer George Whitefield Chadwick.:249
On October 4, 1915, Still married Grace Bundy, whom he had met while they were both at Wilberforce.:1,7 They had a son, William III, and three daughters, Gail, June, and Caroline. They separated in 1932 and divorced February 6, 1939. On February 8, 1939, he married pianist Verna Arvey, driving to Tijuana for the ceremony because interracial marriage was illegal in California.:2 They had a daughter, Judith Anne, and a son, Duncan.:2 Still's granddaughter is journalistCeleste Headlee by way of Judith Anne.
On December 1, 1976, his home was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #169. It is located at 1262 Victoria Avenue in Oxford Square, Los Angeles.
William Grant Still
In 1916 Still worked in Memphis for W.C. Handy's band. In 1918 Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. After the war he went to Harlem, where he continued to work for Handy. During his time in Harlem Still was involved with other important cultural figures of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen, and is considered to be part of that movement.
In the 1930s Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison's Deep River Hour and Paul Whiteman's Old Gold Show, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts.
Still's first major orchestral composition, Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American", was performed in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, conducted by Howard Hanson. It was the first time the complete score of a work by an African American was performed by a major orchestra. By the end of World War II the piece had been performed in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, and London. Until 1950 the symphony was the most popular of any composed by an American. Still developed a close professional relationship with Hanson; many of Still's compositions were performed for the first time in Rochester.
In 1934 Still moved to Los Angeles. He received his first Guggenheim Fellowship and started work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steel.
Still composed Song of a City for the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. The song played continuously during the fair by the exhibit "Democracity." According to Still's granddaughter, he couldn't attend the fair except on "Negro Day" without police protection.
In 1949 his opera Troubled Island, originally completed in 1939, about Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Haiti, was performed by the New York City Opera. It was the first opera by an American to be performed by that company and the first by an African American to be performed by a major company. Still was upset by the negative reviews it received.
Still composed almost 200 works, including nine operas,:200 five symphonies,:200 four ballets, plus art songs, chamber music, and works for solo instruments. He composed more than thirty choral works. Many of his works are believed to be lost.:278
^ abcMurchison, Gayle (1994). ""Dean of Afro-American Composers" or "Harlem Renaissance Man": "The New Negro" and the Musical Poetics of William Grant Still". The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. 53 (1): 42-74. doi:10.2307/40030871. ISSN0004-1823. JSTOR40030871.