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William Grant Still
Portrait of Still by Carl Van Vechten
|Died||December 3, 1978 (aged 83)|
Often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers, Still was the first African-American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known most for his first symphony, the "Afro-American", which was until the 1950s 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 Afro-American literary and cultural figures such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, William Grant Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement.
William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena (Fambro) Still (1872-1927) and William Grant Still Sr. (1871-1895). His father was a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader. William Grant Still Sr. died when his infant son was three months old.
Still's mother moved with him to Little Rock, Arkansas, 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 recordings of classical music, which the boy greatly enjoyed. The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour. His maternal grandmother sang African-American spirituals to him.
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 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, 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.
Still married pianist Verna Arvey. His daughter, Judith Anne Still, has preserved his legacy as the director and owner of William Grant Still Music.
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In 1918, Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. Between 1919 and 1921, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy's band. In 1921 he recorded with Fletcher Henderson's Dance Orchestra, and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's musical, Shuffle Along. Later in the 1920s, Still served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a "Negro Rhapsody" composed by the noted Harlem stride pianist, James P. Johnson. His initial hiring by Paul Whiteman took place in early November 1929.
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. In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; he was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra.
In 1934, Still received his first Guggenheim Fellowship; he started work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steel. 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 African American to be performed by a major company.
Still moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s, where he arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven (the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans) and Lost Horizon (the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe). For Lost Horizon, he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. Still was also hired to arrange the music for the 1943 film Stormy Weather, but left the assignment after a few weeks due to artistic disagreements.
In 1955, he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra; he was the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still's works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.
Still was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Company. He was Known as the "Dean of African-American Composers".