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William Grant Still

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William Grant Still
Portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1949
William Grant Still Jr.

(1895-05-11)May 11, 1895
DiedDecember 3, 1978(1978-12-03) (aged 83)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
  • Composer
  • conductor
  • Grace Bundy
    (m. 1915; div. 1939)
  • (m. 1939)
RelativesCeleste Headlee (granddaughter)

William Grant Still Jr. (May 11, 1895– December 3, 1978) was an American composer of nearly two hundred works, including five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, over thirty choral works, art songs, chamber music, and solo works. Born in Mississippi and growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas,[1] Still attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music[2][3] as a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and then Edgard Varèse.[4] Because of his close association and collaboration with prominent African-American literary and cultural figures, Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance.

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.[5][6] He is known primarily for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930),[7] which was, until 1950, the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.[8] Still was able to become a leading figure in the field of American classical music as the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, have an opera performed by a major opera company, and have an opera performed on national television.[9] The papers of Still and his second wife, the librettist and writer Verna Arvey, are currently held by the University of Arkansas.[5]


William Grant Still Jr. was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi.[1]: 15  He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still Shepperson (1872–1927)[10][11] and William Grant Still Sr.[1]: 5  (1871–1895). His father was a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader.[1]: 5  William Grant Still Sr. died when his infant son was three months old.[1]: 5 

Still's mother moved with him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught high school English.[1]: 6  She met and in 1904[10] 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.[1]: 6  The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour.[citation needed][12] His maternal grandmother Anne Fambro[10] sang African-American spirituals to him.[13]: 6, 12 

William Grant Still Residence at 1262 South Victoria Avenue, Los Angeles, in 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.[14] At 16 years old, he graduated as class valedictorian from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock in 1911.[13]: 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.[15] 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.[1]: 7 

Upon receiving a small amount of money left to him by his father, he began studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.[3] Still worked for the school assisting the janitor, along with a few other small jobs outside of the school, yet still struggled financially.[3] When Professor Lehmann asked Still why he wasn't studying composition, Still told him honestly that he couldn't afford to, leading to George Whitfield Andrews[16] agreeing to teach him composition without charge.[3] He also studied privately with the modern French composer Edgard Varèse and the American composer George Whitefield Chadwick.[4]: 249 [10]

On October 4, 1915,[10] Still married Grace Bundy, whom he had met while they were both at Wilberforce.[1]: 1, 7  They had a son, William III, and three daughters, Gail, June, and Caroline.[10] They separated in 1932 and divorced February 6, 1939.[10] On February 8, 1939, he married pianist Verna Arvey, driving to Tijuana for the ceremony because interracial marriage was illegal in California.[1]: 2 [10] They had a daughter, Judith Anne, and a son, Duncan.[1]: 2 [10] Still's granddaughter is journalist Celeste Headlee, a daughter 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.[17]


William Grant Still

In 1916, Still worked in Memphis for W.C. Handy's band.[10] He then joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I in 1918, and eventually moved to Harlem after the war, where he continued to work for Handy.[10] During this time, Still was involved with many cultural figures of the Harlem Renaissance including the likes of Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen.[5]

He recorded with Fletcher Henderson's Dance Orchestra in 1921,[18]: 85  and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's musical, Shuffle Along[1]: 4  and another pit with Sophie Tucker, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman.[19] Under Henderson, he joined Henry Pace's Pace Phonograph Company, known as Black Swan Records.[20] Later in the 1920s, Still served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a "Negro Rhapsody", composed by the Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson.[21]

In the 1930s, Still worked as an arranger of popular music, composing works for popular NBC Radio broadcasts like Willard Robison's Deep River Hour and Paul Whiteman's Old Gold Show.[19]

Still's first major orchestral composition, Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American", was performed in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, conducted by Howard Hanson.[10] It was the first time the complete score of a work by an African American was performed by a major orchestra.[10] By the end of World War II, the piece had been performed in orchestras located in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, and London.[10] During this time, the symphony was arguably the most popular of any composed by an American so far.[22] As a result of a close professional relationship with Hanson; many of Still's compositions were performed for the first time in Rochester.[10]

In 1934, Still moved to Los Angeles after receiving his first Guggenheim Fellowship,[23] allowing him to start work on the first of his nine operas, Blue Steel.[24] Two years later, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra in a performance of his own works.[6][19]

Still arranged music for films such as Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans, and Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe,[10] the latter of which, he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. Still was also hired to arrange music for the 1943 film Stormy Weather, but left because "Twentieth-Century Fox 'degraded colored people.'"[10]

With 1939 World's Fair in New York City, Still composed Song of a City for the exhibit "Democracity,"[25] which played continuously during the fair's run. [25] Despite writing music for the fair, he was unable attend the fair without police protection except on "Negro Day" .[26]

In 1949, his opera Troubled Island about Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Haiti, was performed by the New York City Opera a decade after its original composition.[10] It was the first opera by an American to be performed by the company[27] and the first by an African American to be performed by a major company.[6] Still was, however, upset by the negative reviews it received.[10] Still was also the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South, doing so in 1955 where he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra.[6] Still's works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.[28]

Three years after his death, A Bayou Legend became the first opera by an African-American composer to be performed on national television.[29] he died in Los Angeles in 1978

Legacy and honors[edit]

Selected compositions[edit]

Still composed almost 200 works, including nine operas,[37]: 200  five symphonies,[37]: 200  four ballets,[38] plus art songs, chamber music, and works for solo instruments.[10] He composed more than thirty choral works.[19] Many of his works are believed to be lost.[10]: 278 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Still, Judith Anne; Dabrishus, Michael J.; Quin, Carolyn L. (1996). William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-25255-6. OCLC 65339854.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Soll, Beverly (2005). I Dream a World: The Operas of William Grant Still. University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 978-1-55728-789-2.
  3. ^ a b c d "William Grant Still". publishing.cdlib.org. Retrieved November 14, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at Horne, Aaron (1996). Brass Music of Black Composers: A Bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-29826-4.
  5. ^ a b c Murchison, 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. ISSN 0004-1823. JSTOR 40030871.
  6. ^ a b c d "William Grant Still, 1895–1978". The Library of Congress. Retrieved April 19, 2018.
  7. ^ Thurman, Kira (August 27, 2021). "When Europe Offered Black Composers an Ear – Spurned by institutions in America, artists were sometimes given more opportunities across the Atlantic". The New York Times. Retrieved August 27, 2021.
  8. ^ "Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still". library.duke.edu. Retrieved March 3, 2024.
  9. ^ Bogdan, Dennis (September 23, 2021). "Comment – A Black Composer Finally Arrives at the Metropolitan Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Whayne, Jeannie M. (2000). Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. University of Arkansas Press. pp. 262, 276–278. ISBN 978-1-55728-587-4.
  11. ^ "Fraternal gathering". February 24, 2019.
  12. ^ Smith, Catherine Parson (2000). William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 307.
  13. ^ a b Smith, Catherine Parsons (2008). William Grant Still. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03322-3.
  14. ^ Still, Dabrishus & Quin 1996, pp. 16–17.
  15. ^ William Grant Still at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  16. ^ "George Whitfield Andrews". Retrieved September 9, 2023.
  17. ^ a b "Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) Report". Cityplanning.lacity.org. Department of City Planning, City of Los Angeles. Archived from the original on August 17, 2011. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
  18. ^ Gibbs, Craig Martin (2012). Black Recording Artists, 1877-1926: An Annotated Discography. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-7238-3.
  19. ^ a b c d e Griggs-Janower, David (1995). "The Choral Works of William Grant Still". The Choral Journal. 35 (10): 41–44. ISSN 0009-5028. JSTOR 23550334.
  20. ^ Smith, Jessie Carney (December 1, 2012). Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press. ISBN 978-1-57859-425-2.
  21. ^ Willa Rouder (2001). "Johnson, James P(rice)". Grove Music Online (8th ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.14409. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0.
  22. ^ Borroff, Edith, "Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still". Duke University Libraries.
  23. ^ a b "William Grant Still". John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  24. ^ Southern, Eileen, and William Grant Still. "William Grant Still." The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 3, no. 2, 1975, pp. 172–173
  25. ^ a b "Music From The 1939 World's". NPR.org. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
  26. ^ "A2Schools.org: PRI Co-Host Celeste Headlee, Conductor John McLaughlin Williams & Singer Daniel Washington in Ann Arbor Jan. 13". AfriClassical. January 16, 2012. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
  27. ^ Shirley, Wayne, "Two Aspects of Troubled Island", American Music Research Center Journal, 2013.
  28. ^ Eliza (September 13, 2023). "William Grant Still: 13 Facts About the Great American Composer". Retrieved February 2, 2024.
  29. ^ Oglesby, Meghann (February 15, 2018). "Black History Spotlight: William Grant Still". www.classicalmpr.org. Retrieved January 20, 2020.
  30. ^ Schiff, Zina (May 2022). Still: Summerlanc – Violin Suite – Pastorela – American Suite (CD). Naxos. Naxos Catalog No. 8.559867.
  31. ^ "Awards – Citation of Merit". www.muphiepsilon.org. Retrieved October 17, 2022.
  32. ^ "William Grant Still Residence". HistoricPlacesLA. Office of Historic Resources, Department of City Planning. Retrieved January 19, 2020.
  33. ^ a b Borroff, Edith (2021). "Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still". Duke University. Retrieved September 12, 2021.
  34. ^ a b Staff (2021). "African American Composer William Grant Still is Born". University of Richmond. Retrieved September 13, 2021.
  35. ^ Still, Dabrishus & Quin 1996, p. [page needed].
  36. ^ Still, William Grant; Adams, Wellington (1937). Twelve Negro spirituals. Handy Brothers Music Co. OCLC 320893340.
  37. ^ a b Kirk, Elise Kuhl (2001), American Opera, pp. 200–204. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252026233
  38. ^ a b c "William Grant Still, African American Composer, Arranger & Oboist". chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
  39. ^ Staff (2021). "Happy birthday, William Grant Still". Celeste Headlee. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  40. ^ a b Smith, Catherine Parson (2000). William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 310.
  41. ^ Staff (2019). "Hesitating Blues, The – W C Handy (arr. William Grant Still)". The Wind Repertory Company. Retrieved February 23, 2021.
  42. ^ Smith, Catherine Parson (2000). William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 224.
  43. ^ "Still, W. S.: Symphonies Nos. 2, "Song of a New Race" and 3, "The Sunday Symphony" / Wood Notes (Fort Smith Symphony, Jeter) – 8.559676". www.naxos.com. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
  44. ^ Walls, Seth Colter (May 28, 2021). "A Black Composer's Intense Opera Gets a Rare Staging – William Grant Still's one-act Highway 1, U.S.A. runs in St. Louis through June 17". The New York Times. Retrieved May 30, 2021.


Further reading[edit]

  • 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
  • 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 (2006). Just Tell the Story. The Master Player Library.
  • Still, William Grant (2011). My Life My Words, a William Grant Still autobiography. The Master Player Library.

External links[edit]