Monday, May 11, 2009

African American Composer William Grant Still Born May 11, 1895

[Africa: Piano Music of William Grant Still; Denver Oldham, piano; Koch 3 7084 2H1 (1991)]

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11, 1895. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872-1927) and William Grant Still (1871-1895), who was also a partner in a grocery store.
Dominique-René de Lerma, Professor of Music at Lawrence University, has specialized in African heritage in classical music for four decades. He has kindly made his research file on William Grant Still available to When William was three months old his father died, and his mother took him to Little rock, where he was raised by his mother and his stepfather, Charles B. Shepperson. The youth began violin lessons at 14, Prof. De Lerma writes, but also taught himself other instruments. Still attended Wilberforce University from 1911-1915 to study for an eventual medical degree, in accordance with his mother's wishes. In 1915 Still left Wilberforce and married Grace Bundy.

Prof. De Lerma says: “He moved to Oberlin in 1917, following two years of work in Columbus where in 1914 he began playing the oboe and cello professionally at the Athletic Club.”Further study, made possible by an inheritance from his father, was undertaken in 1917 and 1919 at Oberlin (where he first heard an orchestra). His stay at Oberlin was interrupted when he enlisted service in the Navy (1918-1919).” After release from the military, Still returned to Oberlin only briefly before going to work for W. C. Handy in New York in 1919. Dr. De Lerma continues: “He earned his living playing the oboe in the pit band for the musical Shuffle Along.” During the show's lengthy run, De Lerma writes, Still studied Music with George Chadwick and Edgar Varese.

Still became a classical composer while working at Black Swan Records, a label owned by African Americans. Prof. De Lerma tells us that Still was the director of Black Swan's classical division from 1921-1922, and was the label's music director from 1922-1924. The first performance of a classical work by Still took place on February 8, 1925. The ensemble was the International Composer's Guild and the work was From the Land of Dreams. Still's Darker America was performed in both 1926 and 1927. Still subsequently worked as a radio arranger with the conductor Don Voorhees. Aaron Myers is a contributor to Africana Encyclopedia. He characterizes William Grant Still as an: “..American composer whose musical works included African American themes and spanned jazz, popular, opera, and classical genres ... He created over 150 musical works including a series of five symphonies, four ballets, and nine operas.”

Dominique-René de Lerma comments on Still's Afro-American Symphony in Africana Encyclopedia: “A contemporary of Work and Dawson, William Grant Still based his first symphony, the Afro-American Symphony (1930), on the blues and his experience as a jazz arranger.” Michael Fleming quotes the composer in the liner notes for the Detroit Symphony's recording of the symphony, on Chandos 9154 (1993): “I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew that it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level."  Other noteworthy recordings of the Afro-American Symphony include one by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Krueger, on Bridge 9086 (1999). The work remains the best known composition of William Grant Still, and is being performed with increasing frequency, as are his other works. For example, his Miniatures, for flute, oboe & piano (1948), will be performed in Portland, Oregon on May 31, 2009 by the Alder Street Sextet.  [Full Biography]

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