Mississippi Writers and Musicians
MISSISSIPPI MUSICIANS: William Grant Still


William Grant Still William Grant Still

Major Works

Operas

  • Blue Steel (1935)
  • Troubled Island (1937)
  • A Bayou Legend (1940)
  • Costaso (1949)
  • Minette Fontaine
  • Highway No. 1. U.S.A. (1963)
  • Afro-American Symphony (1930)
  • From a Deserted Plantation (1933)

Ballets

  • La Guiablesse (1927)
  • Sahdji (1930)
  • Lenox Avenue (1937)
  • Miss Sally's Party (1940)

Works for orchestra

  • Darker America (1924)
  • From the Black Belt (1926)
  • Africa (1930)
  • Kaintuck (1935)
  • And They Lynched Him to a Tree (1940)
  • Those Who Wait (1943)
  • Pastorela (1946)
  • To You, America! (1952)

Theme Music from New York World's Fair
Audio from Duke University's Exhibit of William Grant Still

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William Grant Still: A Biography
By Joni Etta Boyd (SHS)

On May 11, 1895, William Grant Still was born in Woodville,  Mississippi. Still, a musical legend of the 1900's, created a beat of his own in the music world.  This musician, composer, and instrumentalist was blessed with more fame than any other African-American of his time.  Although blacks were not prominent in the musical world in the 1900's, he overcame the discrimination and transcended many other obstacles in his own way to become an important composer of the twentieth century.

William Grant Still was the only child of Carrie "Frambo" Still and William Grant Still, Senior.  Although Still was of African-American descent, his ancestry also consisted of Scotch-Irish, Spanish, and Cherokee.  Both of Still's parents were talented teachers at Alabama A&M College in Huntsville, Alabama (Sewell and Dwight 285).  However, Still's father  died before Still was four months.  Although this tragedy occurred, the Stills moved on.  William was nine or ten years of age when his widowed mother married Charles B. Shepperson, who was also a lover of music (Sewell and Dwight 286).Joni Etta Boyd, SHS Researcher

Carrie Still knew her son had a musical gift after he began to make toy violins at a young age.  She then decided to pay for him to take violin lessons (Sewell and Dwight 286). Still began writing music at age sixteen (Verongos).  He was very intelligent in high school, graduating as valedictorian in 1911 (Sewell and Dwight 287).  Still's goals were high. Thinking only of music, Still set out to achieve his goal of becoming an accomplished African-American musician.  His mother supported her son's decisions.  However, she knew African-Americans did not often succeed in the music industry.  Her good sense and determination strongly influenced Still's life (Sewell and Dwight 286).  Taking his mother's advice, William attended Wilberforce University in Ohio to major in science (Sewell and Dwight 287).

After years of completing courses as a science major, he realized this was not his destiny.   His desire for music became stronger, and his determination became unbearable.  As a result, Still joined the Wilberforce University String Quartet (The Digital Scriptorium).  He began arranging and composing for the school band, and a concert was given for his works only.  As a bandleader, he had to learn to play different instruments so he could teach others how to play (Sewell and Dwight 287).

By Still's senior year at Wilberforce, he was unwilling to give up his amateur musical career (Sewell and Dwight 288).  Therefore, in 1916, at twenty-one years of age, Still left Wilberforce University and enrolled at Oberlin College's Conservatory of Music.  He did not earn a degree at Oberlin.  Instead, he left and went to New York to work professionally (Brown 25).  Still's pay was not nearly enough to provide for himself. So, he worked as a waiter and a janitor to make ends meet (Sewell and Dwight 288).

In 1918, Still joined the United States Navy and served in World War I (Sewell and Dwight 288).  Yet, Still's musical ambition never ceased.  After his release from the navy, he became an arranger and musician for W. C. Handy.  He created the band's first arrangement of St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues (Verongos).  William's experience working with Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, and WOR radio urged him on (Brown 25).  Still wrote seven operas, eight symphonies, ballets, chamber music, chorus music, and orchestra work (Verongos).  Still released a poem called Darker America in 1924 (Sewell and Dwight 290).  This poem was such a success,  he wrote From the Black Belt, which was based on short story sketches (The Digital Scriptorium).  These lyrical poems were successful and only the beginnings of his career.

William Grant Still's mother, Carrie Still, had a chance to witness her son's creative success to some extent, but Carrie Still died in 1927, a couple of years after his first works were released (Sewell and Dwight 286). His fame steadily rose as the years progressed.  Still played in the pit for musical shows and even became the bandleader at the Plantation Club.  He wrote arrangements for many entertainers, but his individual work did not halt.  Sahdji, a two act ballet based on an African story, was released in 1930 (The Digital Scriptorium). Africa, a poem,was also a work of his in 1930 (Sewell and Dwight 290).  In 1931, his most popular work was published, Afro-American Symphony (The Digital Scriptorium).  It was the first major piece by an African American to be accepted by the American musical establishment (Akin 133).

William Grant Still

Still's music was called "Negro-music" by the public. He disliked this term because he felt that having a black person compose and write music on paper did not make it "Negro-music" ("Mississippi-Negroes" Section E).  William Still then understood his mother's warnings of rejection.  He experienced racism and discrimination but disagreed with the notion that blacks could not succeed in the music world (Brown 27).  William Grant Still transcended the barriers and kept pursuing his dreams.  In New York City, Still led a radio orchestra of white men.  This event was a first for blacks (Sewell and Dwight 290).  Still was also the first black to arrange and record (with Don Voorhes) a fantasy on St. Louis Blues (Sewell and Dwight 289).    He soon released other works such as Kaintuck (1935),  a concerto, and Lenox Avenue (1936), a ballet about life in Harlem (Sewell and Dwight 291).  In 1936, Still was the first black conductor to lead a major American Orchestra, appearing with the Rochester Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl (Verongos).

William Grant Still knew his work was his life.  Yet, something else began taking his attention.  In 1939, Verna Arvey, a Russian Jewish musician, turned Still's head away from the music charts (Sewell and Dwight 292).  This journalist, pianist, and soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was soon married to William Grant Still ("Mississippi-Negroes" Section E).  Still had married Grace Bundy in 1915 and had four children (The Digital Scriptorium), but Bundy left Still in 1932, taking their children, and beginning a new life without him (Sewell and Dwight 291).  Still then  married Verna Arvey, and they had two children, Judith and Duncan Still (The Digital Scriptorium).

Still never neglected his musical career.  Many other works of Still include And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940), A Bayou Legend (1940), Pastorela (1946), and To You America! (1952) (Sewell and Dwight 291).  Still created many shows but the only ones produced were Troubled Island, Highway No. 1. U.S.A., and Bayou Legend ("Mississippi-Negroes" Section E).

Verna Arvey Still and William Grant Still were married for thirty-nine years ("Mississippi-Negroes" Section E).  Still's death on December 3, 1978,  of heart failure, widowed  Verna Still.  This was definitely a tragedy, not only to the family of William Still, but to the world.  The legend of William Grant Still lives on after his death.  In 1981, A Bayou Legend was produced for PBS, and in 1984 the premiere of Minette Fontaine was given by the Baton Rouge Opera Company (The Digital Scriptorium).  Today Duke University has an exhibit of William Grant Still in their Special Collections Library (The Digital Scriptorium).

William Grant Still received many awards and citations during his lifetime.  He received The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Prize and the Cleveland Symphony Prize (Brown 26).  He received honorary degrees from colleges such as HowardStill's granddaughter accepts the award for the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.  Photo by Nancy Jacobs University, Bates College, and Oberlin College.  Wilberforce even awarded him a diploma of honor and an honorary Master of Music degree in 1936 (Sewell and Dwight 288).  Still was awarded the National Federation of Music Clubs Prize and he also received a commission to write the theme  music for the first New York World's Fair (Brown 26).  A Guggenheim Fellowship and Governor's Outstanding Mississippian Award were also given to him for his amazing talents.  William Grant Still's work is appreciated throughout the United States.  A William Grant Still Symposium was held at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina,  in 1995, almost twenty years after his death.  This event is indicative of the effect a true musician, William Grant Still., had on American music.

In 1999 William Grant Still was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame for his work in classical music.  The award was accepted for him posthumously by his granddaughter.

Photo (above):  William Grant Still's granddaughter accepts the induction plaque for Still from the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.

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Timeline

1895 - William Grant Still is born in Woodville, Mississippi, on May 11.
         - William's father dies three months after William is born.
1911 - Studies at Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio, until 1914. 
1915 - He marries Grace Bundy.
1916 - Works for W.C. Handy as an arranger.
1917 - Attends Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
1918 - Serves in the United States Navy.
1919 - Rejoins Pace and Handy for a two- years.
1921 - Leaves the W. C. Handy organization.
         - Joins Harry Pace's Phonograph Company to work as an arrange and recording  manager.
         - Plays in the pit orchestra of Shuffle Along musicals.
1922 - Studies composition with George Whitefield Chadwick.
1923 - Begins to study privately with Edgar Varese.
1924 - Symphonic poem Darker America is completed by William Grant Still.
1925 - Composes Levee Land.
1926 - Writes the lively From the Black Belt.
1927 - Receives the second Harmon Award.
         - William's mother dies.
1930 - Finishes poem, Africa.
1931 - October 29, Still's Afro-American Symphony is performed, under Howard Hanson, by The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
1932 - First marriage ends.
1933 - Releases From a Deserted Plantation.
1934 - Awarded a fellowship by the Guggenheim Foundation.
1935 - Blue Steel opera is performed.
1936 - Receives honorary degree as Master of Music from Wilberforce.
         - Ebon Chronicle, an orchestral work is released.
         - Directs the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in his compositions at the Hollywood Bowl.William Grant Still
1937 - Lenox Avenue, the ballet, is composed by Still.
         - William's New Symphony is G Minor subtitled, "Song of a New Race".
1939 - Marries his second wife, Verna Arvey.
1940 - Composes And They Lynched Him on a Tree.
1941 - Receives a degree as Doctor of Music from Howard University.
         - Releases A Bayou Legend and Troubled Island.
1943 - Composes The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy.
1944 - Wins Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for the Best Overture
to celebrate its Jubilee season.
1947 - Awarded an honorary doctorate by Oberlin College, Ohio.
1949 - Costaso debut.
         - Opera Troubled Island is premiered in New York; it is the first opera by a black American to be performed by a major opera company.
         - Composes Songs of Separation.
1952 - To You, America! is performed.
1953 - Receives Phi Beta Sigma George Washington Carver Award.
         - A Freedman's Foundation Award comes to him for his To You, America!
1954 - Awarded an honorary doctorate by Bates College.
1955 - First black man to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the "Deep South."
1956 - Composes Ennanga.
1961 - Receives the prize offered by the U.S. committee for U.N., the N.F.M.C. and the Aeolian Music Foundation for his orchestral work.
1963 - Receives citations from the Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles Board of supervisors.
1965 - League of Allied Arts in Los Angeles and National Association of Negro Musicians are two trophies awarded to Still.
1968 - Receives a trophy from the A.P.P.A. in Washington D.C.
1972 - Awarded Richard Henry Lee Patriotism Award from Knott's Berry Farm, California. Gov. Waller of Mississippi presents key to state to William Grant Still.
         - Governor of Arkansas gives Still a citation.
1975 - University of Southern California at Los Angeles awards Still with an honorary doctorate.
          -Received the key to the State of Mississippi from governor William Waller.
1978 -William Grant Still dies of heart failure on the third of December in Los Angeles.
1981 - A Bayou Legend produced for PBS.
1982 - Third annual prize of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for his successful compositions.
1984 - Premiere of Minette Fontaine  by the Baton Rouge Opera company.
1995 - In Raleigh, North Carolina, William Grant Still's Symposium is held at St. Augustine's College.
1999--William Grant Still was inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame

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Related Websites

This site holds an extremely thorough biography from the Duke University exhibit Still Going On of William Grant Still.

This site contains another extensive biography of William Grant Still by Dr. Edith Borroff.

This is a discography of William Grant Still's works by Gary Boye.

This site contains pictures of William Grant Still as a young man and approaching his elderly stage.

This link contains critics' newspaper reviews on William Grant Still's works.

This page is a fairly detailed chronology of William Grant Still's life and accomplishments.

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Bibliography

Akin, Edward N.  Mississippi. California. Windsor. 1987. 133.

Borroff, Dr. Edith. "Biographical Sketch of William Grant Still."  [Online] Available http://odyssey.lib.duke.edu/sgo/texts/borroff.html, April 8, 1999.

Brown, Donald. "A Voice High-Sounding."Music Educators Journal. February 1984. 25-30.

"Mississippi- Negroes- Musicians- Still, William Grant." Editorial. Jackson Daily News. [Jackson, Mississippi] 15 Nov. 1974. Section E.

Sewell, George A., and Margaret L. Dwight. "William Grant Still: America's Greatest Black Composer." Mississippi Black History Makers. Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi. 1984. 285-292.

Verongos, Helen. "The legend lives: Opera shares tale of state's bayous." The Clarion Ledger. 15 June 1981. n. pg.

The Digital Scriptorium, Special Collections Library, Duke University. [Online Image] Available http:// scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/sgo/, April 8, 1999.

The Digital Scriptorium, Special Collections Library, Duke University. [Online] Available http://scriptorium. lib.duke.edu/sgo/, April 8, 1999.

The Digital Scriptorium, Special Collections Library, Duke University. "Chronology of Cultural Connections." [Online] Available http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/sgo/texts/chron1.html, April 14, 1999.

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Last updated in 1999
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