William Grant Still

William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an American composer of more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas.

William Grant Still
Portrait of Still by Carl Van Vechten
Born(1895-05-11)May 11, 1895
DiedDecember 3, 1978(1978-12-03) (aged 83)

Often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers, Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera.[1] 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.[2]

Born in Mississippi, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and was a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and later Edgard Varèse.

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.[3]

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.[4]


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.[5] 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 was awarded scholarships to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music with Friedrick Lehmann and with George Whitefield Chadwick. He also studied with the modern French composer Edgard Varèse.

Still married pianist Verna Arvey. His daughter, Judith Anne Still, has preserved his legacy as the director and owner of William Grant Still Music.

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. [6]


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.[7]

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.[7]

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.[7] 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".[7]

Legacy and honors

Selected compositions

  • From the Land of Dreams (1924, believed lost until 1997)
  • Darker America (1924)
  • Levee Land (1925)
  • From the Black Belt (1926)
  • La Guiablese, ballet (1927)
  • Sahdji, ballet (1930)
  • Africa (1930)
  • Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American" (1930)
  • A Deserted Plantation (1933)
  • Blue Steel, opera (1934)
  • Symphony No. 2 in G minor "Song of a New Race" (1937)
  • Lenox Avenue, for radio announcer, chorus, & orchestra (1937)
  • Seven Traceries (1939)
  • And They Lynched him on a Tree, for chorus, contralto, narrator, and small orchestra, libretto by Katherine Biddle (1940)
  • Miss Sally's Party, ballet (1940)
  • Can'tcha line 'em, for orchestra (1940)
  • Old California, for orchestra (1941)
  • Troubled Island, opera, produced 1949 (1937–39)
  • A Bayou Legend, opera (1941)
  • A Southern Interlude, opera (1942)
  • Incantation and Dance, for oboe & pf.
  • In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1943)
  • Suite for Violin & Piano, including the movement later arranged for String Orchestra as Mother and Child (1943)
  • Festive Overture (1944)
  • Poem for Orchestra (1944)
  • Symphony No. 5, "Western Hemisphere" (1945, revised 1970)[9]
  • Wailing Women, for soprano and chorus (1946)
  • Symphony No. 4, "Autochthonous" (1947)
  • Grief, originally titled by Still as Weeping Angel (1953)
  • Danzas de Panama (Dances of Panama) (1953)
  • The Little Song That Wanted to Be a Symphony (1954)
  • Little Red Schoolhouse (1957)
  • The American Scene (1957)
  • Ennanga (1958)
  • Symphony No. 3, "Sunday Symphony" (1958)[10]
  • Lyric Quartet (1960)
  • Highway 1 U.S.A., opera (1963)

See also

Further reading

  • Janower, David, "The Choral Works of William Grant Still", in The Choral Journal, May 1995.
  • 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
  • Soll, Beverly (2005). I Dream A World: The Operas of William Grant Still. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-789-9
  • 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, Michael J. Dabrishus, and Carolyn L. Quin (1996). William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood 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.


  1. Shirley, Wayne, "Two Aspects of Troubled Island", American Music Research Center Journal, 2013.
  2. Borroff, Edith, "Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still". Duke University Libraries.
  3. Kirk, Elise Kuhl (2001), American Opera, pp. 200–204. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252026233
  4. Murchison, Gayle. "'Dean of Afro-American Composers' or 'Harlem Renaissance Man': 'The New Negro' and the Musical Poetics of William Grant Still". The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 1994, pp. 42–74. www.jstor.org/stable/40030871
  5. William Grant Still at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20110817090923/http://cityplanning.lacity.org/complan/HCM/dsp_hcm_result.cfm?community=Wilshire
  7. "William Grant Still, 1895-1978". The Library of Congress. Retrieved April 19, 2018.
  8. "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | All Fellows". Retrieved February 5, 2019.
  9. "William Grant Still, African American Composer, Arranger & Oboist". chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com. Retrieved October 31, 2018.
  10. "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.


  • Still, Judith Anne. discovermusic@williamgrantstill.com, Daughter and primary informational resource.
  • Horne, Aaron. Woodwind Music of Black Composers, Greenwood Press, 1990.
  • Roach, Hildred. Black American Music. Past and Present, second edition, Krieger Publishing Company 1992.
  • Sadie, Stanley; Hitchcock, H. Wiley. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1986.
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