William Grant Still

William Grant Still Biography

Conductor, Songwriter (1895–1978)
William Grant Still was a gifted conductor and composer, and the first African American to have major productions of both a symphony (1931) and opera (1949).


Composer, arranger and conductor William Grant Still was born in 1895. In 1931, he became the first African American to have a major orchestra play one of his compositions, Afro-American Symphony. He was also the first African American to conduct a leading American orchestra. Many of his works reflect his concerns about the position of African Americans in society. Still died in 1978.

Early Life

William Grant Still was born on May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi. After his father passed away when he was a baby, his mother moved the family to live with Still's grandmother in Little Rock, Arkansas. His childhood home was filled with the sounds of his grandmother singing spirituals.

Beginning a Career in Music

In 1911, Still enrolled in Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he began to study medicine. He left the college before graduating and turned his attention to music, studying composition at Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He also spent time learning from George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston; later, he was instructed by Edgar Varèse.

Still gained practical experience arranging band music for Paul Whiteman, W.C. Handy and Artie Shaw. His notable early orchestral compositions include 1924's Darker America and 1926's From the Black Belt. He was honored with Guggenheim fellowships in both 1934 and 1935.

Breaking Down Barriers

In 1931, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra gave the debut performance of Still's Afro-American Symphony; it was the first time that a symphony composed by an African American had been played by a major orchestra. In 1936, Still became the first African American to conduct a noted American orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

Many of Still's musical creations melded jazz with more traditional orchestral melodies. They also incorporated his passionate interest in African music, as well as his societal concerns about African Americans in the United States. He created 1930's Sahdji, a ballet with an African backdrop; his acclaimed 1937 ballet, Lenox Avenue, takes place in Harlem.

After relocating to Los Angeles in 1939, Still's success continued. In 1949, Troubled Island, an opera about the 1791 Haitian slave uprising, became the first full-length work written by an African American to be produced by a well-known opera company. In 1981, another of his operas, A Bayou Legend, was performed on national television, a first for an African American.

Musical Success and Legacy

Still had a long and fruitful career as a composer, arranger and conductor. The multiple symphonies, ballets and operas that he produced over the years earned him the nickname "Dean of Afro-American Composers." His compositions were performed across the world, including by the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony and the Tokyo Philharmonic.

Still also wrote for radio and film, and shared his talents further by creating compositions for children in the 1950s. He was awarded honorary degrees from institutions such as Howard University, Oberlin College, the University of Arkansas, Pepperdine University and the University of Southern California. At the age of 83, he died in Los Angeles on December 3, 1978.

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