William Grant Still

1895 - 1978



William Grant Still was an American composer of nearly 200 works, including five symphonies and nine operas. 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.

In 1918 Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. After the war he went to Harlem, where he was involved with cultural figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen.

He recorded with Fletcher Henderson's Dance Orchestra in 1921, and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's musical, Shuffle Along and in other pit orchestras for Sophie Tucker, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman. 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" on NBC Radio.

His first major orchestral composition, Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American," was performed in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic, conducted by Howard Hanson. It was the first time the complete score of a work by an African American was performed by a major orchestra. By the end of World War II the piece had been performed in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, and London. Until 1950 the symphony was the most popular of any composed by an American. Still developed a close professional relationship with Hanson; many of Still's compositions were performed for the first time in Rochester.

In 1934 Still moved to Los Angeles. He received his first Guggenheim Fellowship and started work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steel. In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl; he was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra in a performance of his own works. In 1949 he became the first American composer to have an opera premiered by the New York City Opera (Troubled Island).



  • American Symphonies from Ives to Zwilich
    • American Symphonies from Ives to Zwilich
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