Timeline: William Grant Still (1895-1978)
William Grant Still Jr. was called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers.” His career was full of “firsts”; milestones that broke through the racial and social barriers that were so prevalent in the United States.
Still was born in Mississippi in 1895. His mother was a high school English teacher and his father was part-owner of a grocery store, who also moonlighted as a band leader. William Grant Still Sr. passed away when his infant son was only three months old. After his father’s death, Still’s mother moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas where she remarried. Still’s step-father was a great musical influence on him, sharing many recordings of classical music. William’s grandmother taught him all the spirituals that she could remember. At a young age, he started studying the violin and began to teach himself how to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola.
William Grant Still’s mother wanted him to go to medical school, but music was calling. He used what little money he had to attend Oberlin Conservatory, working as a janitor to pay his way through. Even with that employment, money was tight. Still’s talents were noticed by the staff and he was asked why he wasn’t studying composition. The truth was he couldn’t afford it. So composer George Andrews took Still as a student free of charge.
Still served in the U.S. Navy in World War I. After the war, he settled with his wife and family in Harlem. He became associated with the Harlem Renaissance, making friends with other artists like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Still’s career began to take off. He started as a pit musician in the 1920s and began arranging popular music for the stage and the radio.
For over two decades, the "Afro-American Symphony" was the quintessential American symphony performed all around the world.
In 1931, William Grant Still’s Symphony No.1 “Afro-American” was premiered in Rochester. This marked the first complete work by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. For the next two decades, the Afro-American was the quintessential American symphony performed all around the world. In 1936, Still conducted the Hollywood Bowl becoming the first African-American composer to conduct their own music.
This success led to more opportunities. In the 1930s, William Grant Still began to arrange and compose music for major motion pictures like Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon. In 1939 he was commissioned to compose a piece for the World’s Fair in New York City. Even though his music was been played continuously, he couldn’t even attend the fair without police protection due to his race. In that same year, Still remarried pianist Verna Arvey. The wedding had to happen in Tijuana, since interracial marriage was illegal in California at the time.
Even late in his career, William Grant Still was breaking new ground. In 1949, Still’s opera Troubled Island was performed by the New York City Opera. This was the first work by an American composer of any race to be performed by the company. In 1955, he became the first African-American to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South, when he led the New Orleans Philharmonic.
He passed away in December of 1978. Yet even after his death, his opera A Bayou Legend became the first opera by an African-American composer to be premiered on television in 1981.
For more information on Still’s life and influence, check out the book William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions by Catherine Parson Smith and, as always, follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.