William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11, 1895. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still and William Grant Still. William was only three months old when his father died. Carrie Still then took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they lived with her mother. During William's childhood, Carrie married Charles B. Shepperson. He bought many 78 rpm records of opera, which William greatly enjoyed. The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour.
William the multi-instrumentalist
William started violin lessons at age 14 and also taught himself how to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola. His maternal grandmother introduced him to African American spirituals by singing them to him. At age 16, he graduated from M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
His mother wanted him to go to medical school, so Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University in Ohio from 1911 to 1915. He then dropped out of school and married Grace Bundy, an acquaintance from Wilberforce. He moved to Oberlin in 1917, following two years of work in Columbus where he began playing the oboe and cello professionally at the Athletic Club.
Life at Oberlin
He studied at Oberlin with Maurice P. Kessler (violin), George Whitfield Andrews (composition), Friedrich J. Lehman (counterpoint and theory), and Charlotte Andrews Stevens, and played in the student string quartet. His stay at Oberlin was interrupted when he enlisted in the Navy from 1918-1919. Black sailors were restricted to aspects of food service but, when it became known that Still was a trained musician, he was engaged to play the violin for the meals of officers on the U.S.S. Kroonland. Released from the Navy with the end of the war, he returned briefly to Oberlin and then in 1919 moved to New York, and worked with W.C. Handy as performer, arranger, and road manager and in the Pace and Handy Music Company Band.
His musical training embraced both European traditions and the African-American traditions. He earned his living playing the oboe in the pit band for the musical Shuffle Along. Shuffle Along was produced by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Some of its musical arrangements were done by William. The show featured an African American cast and was so successful that it ran for 504 performances in New York City before going on tour. A scholarship enabled him to study composition with the avant garde composer Edgar Varese in New York City for two years. William also received a Guggenheim and a Rosenwald fellowship.
The "Harlem Renaissance", also called the "New Negro Movement", began about the time of Still's arrival in New York City. It proved that African Americans had a rich and vibrant culture which was fast becoming a prominent cultural feature of the United States and the world. Two leading authors who influenced the movement were W. E. B. DuBois, who wrote The Souls of Black Folk, and Alain Locke, author of The New Negro. William Grant Still was a firm believer and an active participant in the "Harlem Renaissance", and his music showed its influence for the rest of his life. He also performed classical music as an oboist with the Harlem Orchestra.
Still became a classical composer while working in the record business. Black Swan Records was a label owned by African Americans. 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.
Eastman School of Music
Darker America won a publication prize at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and was described as the “high spot” of its New York concert by the Musical Courier. The Eastman School of Music and its distinguished director, Dr. Howard Hanson, who would become increasingly important in Still's life. After Darker America, William Grant Still asked the jazz singer Florence Mills if she would sing a work with a classical orchestra if he were to write one for her. When she agreed, he wrote Levee Land, with four songs for singer and orchestra. Eugene Goosens conducted the International Composer's Guild in the premiere of the work on January 4, 1926.
In 1930, his African ballet Sahdji made use of a scenario by Alain Locke. Though the play lasted nearly an hour, the music was composed within a month. Also in that same year, Still composed the Afro-American Symphony over a 3 month period, during which he had no steady work. In his journal, Still wrote: "I seek in the 'Afro-American Symphony' to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress."
Howard Hanson and the RPO
The first performances of the Afro-American Symphony were given by the Rochester Philharmonic, with Howard Hanson conducting, on Oct. 28 and 29, 1931. The New York Philharmonic also premiered the symphony in 1935 at Carnegie Hall. Still's symphonic music received its greatest North American publicity when Leopold Stokowski played the fourth movement of the Afro-American Symphony on his cross-country tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Move to LA
William moved to Los Angeles in 1934, having won the first of two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships (third in 1938), followed by two years on a Rosenwald Fellowship (1939-1940). After sound was introduced to the cinema, Still was engaged in writing music for such early films as Lost Horizon (1935), Pennies From Heaven (1936), and Stormy Weather (1943). Later he served as composer for television, writing music for Gunsmoke and the original Perry Mason Show (1954). William also gave serious attention to his symphonic, chamber, and operatic interests. On July 23, 1936, William conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of his own compositions at the Hollywood Bowl. This was the first time an African American conductor led a major symphony orchestra in concert in the United States.
Later years and Death
William Grant Still and Grace Bundy Still were divorced in 1939. Still and Verna Arvey married on February 8, 1939. The couple had a son and daughter. Over the next few decades, Still continued to be a prolific composer and wrote many more symphonies and piano works. The last three years of William’s life were spent in a nursing home as a result of a series of strokes and heart attacks. William Grant Still died on December 3, 1978, at the age of 83.