William Grant Still, often called the Dean of African American Composers, was born in Woodville on 1 May 1895 and died in Los Angeles on 3 December 1978. Both of his parents were musical, and both had college degrees, though his maternal grandmother had been a slave. His family moved away from Mississippi when he was quite young after the death of his father, although visits to relatives reinforced his connection to his original home. At his mother’s urging, Still initially studied medicine at Wilberforce University, but his enduring enthusiasm for music—perhaps a legacy from his father, who had been the local bandmaster—soon won out, and he was traveling to work with ensembles led by W. C. Handy. He later studied at Oberlin, served in World War I, and ultimately moved to New York to pursue his musical career. Still worked as a staff arranger and orchestrator for Handy and others until he was able to shift entirely to composing. He subsequently moved to the West Coast.
Still’s best education came from encounters with famous composers. Americanist George Chadwick taught Still for free for some months at the New England Conservatory, and he later benefited from a personal scholarship to work with modernist Edgar Varèse. Still was also strongly influenced by the work of Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor and by his immersion in popular music and jazz through his years as arranger and orchestrator.
Still’s most famous work was typical of his style. The Afro-American Symphony, completed in 1930 and premiered the following year, included a banjo in the orchestra and featured syncopated rhythms that tended to portray blacks with traditional, simple lives. For the same reason, he kept harmonies simple and dissonance tightly in check. Nearly all of his music was similarly programmatic, often with themes of black life in America, and nearly all of it is what scholars call neoromantic, with harmonies that harkened back to the mid-nineteenth century, though they were also imbued with jazz influences.
Still received many honors, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, numerous commissions and prizes, and eight honorary doctorates from institutions that included Howard University, Bates College, the New England Conservatory, and the University of Southern California. Dedicated to encouraging racial harmony and the advancement of African Americans, he was openly troubled that his audiences were almost entirely white. He left a large body of work, including countless arrangements and orchestrations, four ballet scores, nine operas, a dozen symphonies or symphonic poems, many other works for orchestra, and numerous songs.
- Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions (2000)
- Judith Anne Still et al., eds., William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography (1996)