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Sat, 05.11.1895

William Grant Still, Symphonic Composer born

WilliamGrant Still

On this date in 1895, William Grant Still was born. He was a Black musician and composer.

From Woodville, Mississippi, he was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. Still and his first wife, Grace Bundy, had four children. He took a break from his musical studies at Oberlin College during World War I to join the Navy.  At this time the only job available to African Americans in the Navy was mess attendant. Yet, despite this discriminatory treatment, he and many other African Americans chose to reinforce their claim on democracy and freedom and fight for liberty overseas, although they did not have full freedom at home. During his tour of duty, he was relieved of some of his mess responsibilities to perform for officers' meals after it was discovered that he could play the violin.

The period from 1926 to the early 1940s was Still's most prolific musically. During this time he wrote "Levee Land" (1925), a suite for orchestra and soprano that combines traditional western musical elements with jazz; "From the Black Belt" (1926), a work for chamber orchestra based on seven short character sketches; "Sahdji" (1930), a choral ballet based on an African story, and "Afro-American Symphony."

It was Still's Afro-American Symphony which became the first Black-composed symphony performed by an American orchestra. It was premiered by the Eastman Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. The symphony was performed by 34 other American and European orchestras during the 1930s.  His most popular work; "Lenox Avenue" (1936), is a ballet depicting life in Harlem; and his opera "Troubled Island" (1941), is about the Haitian slave rebellion and consequent troubles of their leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines. During the 1950s, Still turned to write for young audiences.

During this period he composed among other works, "The Little Song That Wanted to Be a Symphony" (1954), "The Little Red Schoolhouse" (1957), "The American Scene" (1957), which is a set of five descriptive suites for young Americans based on geographic regions of the country, and various songs and arrangements written for children's music textbooks. William Grant Still died in 1978.

William Grant Still also was the first African American to have an opera, "A Bayou Legend," performed on national television (1981).

Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century.
Edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier
Copyright 1998, University if Illinois Press
ISBN 0-252-06213-2

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