[William Grant Still conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in a piece titled Old California that he wrote for the city of Los Angeles’ Birthday Concert on Sept. 8, 1965.]
[Judith Anne Still with her father, William Grant Still, a few years before his death in 1978.]
University of Southern California
“I want to accomplish my father’s longed-for dream of using his music to bring racial harmony and understanding to our country.” Judith Anne Still
By Susan Bell
November 9, 2012
"My father was a wonderful mixture of Gandhi, Einstein and your kindergarten teacher,” Judith Anne said affectionately. “He was a sweetie, very spiritual in nature and not at all an egotistical person.”
He enjoyed sharing his love of music with his children, creating homemade kazoos out of combs and tissue paper to amuse them. However, painful memories of his own mother’s insistence that he study medicine rather than music — which she believed was not a respectable career for an educated person of color — impelled him to never force his children to play an instrument.
Thus, when Judith Anne’s mother pushed her to learn the piano, the celebrated composer intervened, saying, “Leave her alone, she’s going to be a writer.”
And she did, winning several awards for her writing, including an Independent Publisher Book Award in 2008. Still won a full scholarship offered by USC to academically gifted students of color and majored in English in USC Dornsife.
“USC was thinking out of the box in offering these wonderful opportunities,” she said, referring to some of the nation’s first minority programs.
The Still family already had close connections with USC. Still had given talks at the university, where he had many friends. Students and faculty were familiar with his music from the concerts he gave at nearby Exposition Park.
While attending USC Dornsife, Judith Anne was active in honor societies Phi Kappa Phi and Phi Beta Kappa. She also fondly remembers evenings spent playing the card game bid whist and reciting poetry with friends at the Trojan Grill, then a popular eatery in the basement of the student union.
Judith Anne met her future husband, Larry Allyn Headlee ’65 at USC, while he was studying for his master’s in marine geology in USC Dornsife. The couple married in 1962 and had four children, the second of whom, Lisa, was born seven days after Judith Anne graduated magna cum laude.
Although her years at USC coincided with a period of major political upheaval, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Judith Anne’s devotion to her children and her studies kept her preoccupied. Despite the demands of her growing family, she continued her studies and graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a master’s degree in English in 1968.
After graduating, her husband worked on a mini-submarine for a private company, General Oceanographics. In 1969, Headlee’s mini-submarine rescued crewmembers of another mini-submarine trapped on the ocean floor at a depth of 432 feet. Judith Anne’s marriage was tragically cut short when Headlee drowned saving a fellow crewmember while attempting to raise a sunken pleasure cruiser off the coast of Catalina Island on Sept. 21, 1970.
“USC helped us through in the lean years after my husband died,” she said. “The USC Symphony played my father’s piece Rhapsody, dedicated to the memory of my husband, and my whole family attended.”
Both she and her father maintained lifelong ties with USC, which never forgot William Grant Still’s outstanding contribution to classical music. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1975. The composer’s final public appearance before his death was at a USC-hosted tribute dinner to commemorate his 80th birthday. Then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was among the many guests and the eminent composer and conductor Howard Hanson flew out from New York to lead the tributes.
When Still died three years later and his family struggled to pay the funeral expenses, USC stepped in and organized a memorial concert.
USC has played a continuing role in her family’s life, Judith Anne said.
“Sometimes it seems as if everything radiates from there,” she said. “A couple of years ago USC had a concert of my father’s work and our old neighbors from Cimarron Street came to hear it.”
Five generations of the Still family have forged and perpetuated the legacy of William Grant. The composer acquired his deep love of music from his grandmother, Anne Fambro, a former slave who taught him the great African American spirituals, then called Negro spirituals, and from his stepfather, Charles Shepperson, who brought home a Victrola gramophone and introduced him to the operas of Verdi and Puccini. His father, William Grant Still Sr., who died when the younger Still was a baby, routinely traveled 75 miles from Woodville, Miss., to Baton Rouge, La., to learn the coronet and later started a uniformed band in Woodville. His mother, Carrie Still Shepperson, an English teacher, pianist, choral director and strict disciplinarian, was the dominant force in his early life, giving him the determination to succeed against all odds.
Now his daughter’s devotion to his memory has ensured that his musical legacy will not be forgotten. Judith Anne’s daughter, Lisa Headlee, who is working on a book of photographs of her grandfather, is poised to receive the baton from her mother and carry it forward.
“My father’s motto was ‘We all rise together or we don’t rise at all,’ ” Still said. “My cherished hope is that my father’s story will one day be brought to an even wider audience through a feature film.
“I want to accomplish my father’s longed-for dream of using his music to bring racial harmony and understanding to our country.”