Wednesday, March 28, 2018 African American Composers: Striking a Chord [William Grant Still, William Levi Dawson & R. Nathaniel Dett]

William Grant Still in a pensive pose from 1949
(Courtesy of Judith Anne Still)

The Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra 

The City's Magazine

April 2018

By Michael McLeod

Now and then, some well-meaning person will try to give Celeste Headlee a compliment about her grandfather. It does not go well. They’ll say: “His music sounds just like George Gershwin to me.” And she’ll say: “Are you kidding me? It’s more like the other way around.”

Headlee is a writer, NPR commentator, and opera singer living near Washington, D.C.  Her grandfather, William Grant Still, was one of the first African American composers to create classical music in the first half of the 20th century. Born in 1895 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to two first-generation, free black schoolteachers, he began by crafting his own violins from scrap wood as a boy and would go on, in a career that took him to New York City and Hollywood, to become known as “the dean of African American composers.”

He was the first black musician to have his own opera performed by the New York City Opera Company; the first to conduct major symphony orchestras and see his own symphony performed by them; the first to have one of his classical works broadcast on television; the first to conduct a radio orchestra—at the insistence of its musicians, all of whom were white.

He was also party to another, more dubious first. That’s where Gershwin comes in.

Still belonged to the first—and certainly not the last—generation of African American musicians to routinely see their music appropriated, whole or in part, by white performers who turned it into mainstream success. A notorious example involves the opening chorus of a Gershwin song, “I Got Rhythm,” a vintage jazz standard first sung by a brassy young star by the name of Ethel Merman in Gershwin’s 1930 Broadway hit, Girl Crazy.

The belief among some classical music historians, and all of Still’s colleagues and family members, is that Gershwin “borrowed” that catchy, four-note theme after hearing its inventor, one William Grant Still, play it, as he often did, while warming up with his oboe as a pit musician for an earlier, long-running Broadway smash of that era, Shuffle Along, a Eubie Blake revue which was re-envisioned and revived on Broadway two years ago.

The soft-spoken Still never complained about the supposed theft. But in Afro-American Symphony, his groundbreaking fusion of blues motifs incorporated into complex symphonic conventions, he inserted the same theme at the beginning of the third movement, as if to wordlessly reclaim it as his own.

Headlee draws a measure of amusement and satisfaction from an old joke – if indeed it is a joke: “They used to say that Gershwin would go down to Harlem with a stack of dollar bills and walk around asking people:  ‘Hey. Could you hum that tune for me again?’ ”

Still is one of three pioneering and oft-overlooked African American classical composers whose works will be performed April 21 and 22 in a concert at Rollins College combining the Bach Festival and Bethune-Cookman University choirs. The concert, African-American Masterpieces: Symphonic Spirituals, is in observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Like Still, both of the other composers, Nathaniel Dett and William Dawson, lived in a looking-glass world, honored for creating music in its loftiest forms while being treated as second-class citizens. They were keenly aware of a responsibility to challenge the patronizing racial stereotyping of the day by incorporating motifs from the blues and jazz—which were still dismissed by many as lowly, rough-hewn genres—into lofty classical compositions.

Dawson, best known as a composer for choral arrangements of African American spirituals, sold his bike for $6 when he was 13 years old and set off from his home in Anniston, Alabama, to the Tuskegee Institute, where he was eventually befriended and mentored by its founder, Booker T. Washington.

He also secretly earned a degree from the then-segregated Horner Institute in Kansas City, but was not allowed to take the stage at graduation for fear of upsetting the crowd. His Negro Folk Symphony, which debuted in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski, will be performed during the Bach-Bethune-Cookman event.

Dett, born in Canada in a town founded by fugitive slaves, grew up to spend most of his musical career in the United States. He was dedicated to incorporating black spirituals into the classical concert tradition. His work will be represented in the concert by The Ordering of Moses, an ambitious oratorio fusing European romanticism with African American spiritual themes.

The oratorio was first performed in 1937 in Cincinnati, which had been a key way station in the Underground Railroad, one that Dett’s grandparents may have passed through on the way to Canada. The concert was a success, but, in an era in which white spirituals were accepted as part of the mainstream but black spirituals were not, a live radio broadcast was cut off because of listener complaints.

Of the three composers, Still was the most versatile, well-traveled and influential.

He taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello, viola and violin, which he used to serenade officers at mealtime after enlisting in the Navy during World War I.

He had a lifelong working friendship with W.C. Handy, an Alabama log cabin-born African American musician and composer who earned a title of his own, “Father of the Blues,” for helping to transform a regional genre—inspired, he liked to say, by “the sound of whippoorwills, bats, and hoot owls”—into a national phenomenon.

After moving to New York City, Still became part of the Harlem Renaissance, a surge of artistic and intellectual expression among African American professors, artists and writers. In the late 1930s, he was enrolled by two key figures in the movement, arts patron Charlotte Mason and Howard University professor Alain Locke, to compose the music for a defiant choral ballad, And They Lynched Him on a Tree.

It was originally performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1940, at a time when anti-lynching legislation was being considered by Congress. The ballad, which calls for two choruses, one white and one black, will be performed as part of the Symphonic Spirituals program.

Though family members say he rarely spoke of it, Still himself had seen a lynching in Alabama while traveling with a company of blues musicians. Over the years, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. Southern politicians blocked them. None was ever adopted.

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