William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at AfriClassical.com, which features a comprehensive Works List by Dr. Dominique-Rene de Lerma.
John Malveaux of
January 24, 1926 was a significant date in music history
Levee Land, William Grant Still and Florence Mills
© Bill Egan 1998
36 Gundara St
On Sunday evening January 24 1926 an event occurred at the Aeolian Hall, New York which was, in several respects, a significant landmark in the Harlem Renaissance but has since been largely forgotten. On that night the International Composers’ Guild presented a concert which included a performance by the black Broadway star Florence Mills. She sang a group of four jazz-based songs under the title Levee Land. These had been specially composed for the occasion by William Grant Still, a rising young African-American classical composer.
The concert included several other notable features: Florence Mills was conducted by Eugene Goossens in what was reported as his first encounter with jazz; Ottorino Respighi made his debut as a conductor, while his wife made her American debut as a concert singer; and a new sonata, by Italian enfant terrible Vittorio Rieti, was presented.
Nevertheless, it was certainly the Mills-Still collaboration that inspired the large attendance and the enthusiastic response from the press and audience. To explain why this was so, it is necessary to relate something of the careers and friendship of William Grant Still and Florence Mills.