Long considered the dean of African-American composers, William Grant Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to musical parents of African-American, Native-American, Spanish, Irish and Scotch heritage. His father was a bandmaster in Woodville. Following the death of Still’s father at the age of 24, when William was only a few months old, his mother Carrie moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the young Still began his musical education with violin lessons from a private teacher. His stepfather, Charles B. Shepperson, encouraged the young musician, taking him to musical shows and buying him Victor Red Seal operatic recordings.
At the age of sixteen, Still entered Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio seeking a Bachelor of Science Degree and a career in medicine. The lure of music proved too strong and soon he was learning to play various instruments, conducting the school’s band and making his first attempts to compose and orchestrate. His subsequent studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music were financed through his father’s legacy at first, and later through a scholarship established on his behalf by the faculty.
After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War One, Still began his professional career playing violin, cello and oboe in orchestras and orchestrating for various professional groups. Some of the legendary musicians he worked with included W. C. Handy, Paul Whiteman, Artie Shaw and Sophie Tucker. For several years, he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” on CBS and WOR radio.
Later studies included a period at the New England Conservatory of Music with George Chadwick and an individual scholarship to study with the remarkable French-born composer, Edgar Várese. In the twenties, he made his first appearances as a serious composer, receiving Guggenheim and Rosenwald fellowships, and several important commissions from, among others, CBS, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, Paul Whiteman, the League of Composers and the Cleveland Orchestra. Other honors included the Jubilee Prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1944) for Festive Overture, and a prize from the US Committee for the United Nations, the NFMC, and the Aeolian Music Fund for his orchestral work, The Peaceful Land, cited as the best musical composition honoring the United Nations (1961).
Still received honorary degrees from several prestigious academic institutions, including Howard University (1941), Oberlin College (1947), Bates College (1954), Pepperdine University (1973) and the Peabody Conservatory (1974). In addition, he was awarded numerous trophies and citations from organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians, the National Association of Negro Musicians, the Phi Beta Sigma George Washington Carver Award, the Richards Henry Lee Patriotism Award, and a citation from the governor of Arkansas. He also lectured at various universities from time to time, and was a long time member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Among his many distinctions, Still was the first African-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States (the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936); the first African-American to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; the first African-American to have an operatic work produced by a major opera company in the United States (Troubled Island by the New York City Opera at the City Center in 1949); and the first person of color to have an opera televised over a national network. He wrote over 150 compositions, including, opera ballets, five symphonies, chamber works, arrangements of folk themes, plus numerous instrumental, choral and vocal works.
William Grant Still died on December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles, California
Composer website: www.williamgrantstill.com