William Grant Still, “The Dean” of African-American composers, was a trailblazer when it came to classical music. He was the first Black person to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own 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.
Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1895. His mother was a teacher and his father was a local bandleader. His father died when Still was only three months old. His mother took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she married Charles B. Shepperson.
Shepperson was instrumental to Still’s expose to classical music. Shepperson took Still to operettas and bought Red Seal recordings of classical music. Still also took violin lessons while in Little Rock. Still taught himself how to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola. African American spirituals also influenced by, which was sung to him by his grandmother.
Still’s mother wanted him to go to medical school, so he pursued a Bachelor of Science degree at Wilberforce University from 1911 to 1915. While at the school, Still conducted the university band and started to compose music for orchestrations. He became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., during this time period.
Still left school and moved to Columbus, where he began playing the oboe and cello professionally at the Athletic Club. He also played the oboe and violin in the tours of the National Guard Band from 1915-1916.
He went on to study at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he played in the student string quartet. Still left the school in 1918 when he enlisted in the Navy.
During that time period Black sailors were restricted to food service. But word spread about Still’s musical talents, so he was allowed to play the violin for the officers on the U.S.S. Kroonland.
After a brief return to Oberlin, Still moved to New York in 1919, where he worked in the Pace and Handy Music Company. He was an active participant in the Harlem Renaissance. He was an oboist with the Harlem Orchestra. While in New York his musical works spanned jazz, popular, opera, and classical genres.
Early in Still’s career he composed in the modernist style, but he later merged musical aspects of his African-American heritage with traditional European classical forms to form his unique style.
In 1931 his Symphony No. 1 was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, making him the first Black composer to receive such attention. In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first Black to conduct a major American Orchestra.
In 1949 his opera Troubled Island was performed by the New York City Opera and he became the first opera by an African-American to conduct a major company. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South.
Still’s work was also performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra. He was the first African-American to have an opera performed on national television.
Over the course of Still’s career he created over 150 musical works, including a series of five symphonies, four ballets, and nine operas.
Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he arranged music for films, which included Pennies from Heaven, which was the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans, and Los Horizon, which was the 1937 film staring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe.
Still received two Guggenheim Fellowships. He was awarded honorary doctorates from several universities, including Oberlin College, Wilberforce University, Howard University, USC, and Pepperdine University.
Still married Verna Arvey, a journalist and concert pianist, in 1939. They had two children and remained together until he passed of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1978.