Composers of Color, part lV: William Grant Still
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
If you believe the tune ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ originated with George Gershwin, think again! It was actually first heard by Gershwin in the highly successful 1921 show ‘Shuffle Along,’ the band of which included none other than our featured composer, Mr. Still. He would play the 4 note riff in the show every every night, probably on the oboe which was one of the many instruments Still taught himself to play. The riff later makes a brief appearance in the 3rd movement of his Afro-American Symphony. Listen for it 20 seconds in, then hear the rest of the piece, titled ‘Humor.’
For the next 20 years after its premiere (1931) in Rochester, Afro-American Symphony would be played by 38 orchestras throughout Europe and the US. Still writes that the work “portray the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits of their African forbears.” Here is the slow movement, called ‘Sorrow.’
Still attended Oberlin Conservatory and New England Conservatory, two of the few colleges to welcome black students with open arms. His young life continued in NYC where he became an arranger for blues musician W.C. Handy. He had first hand jazz experience playing alongside greats Fletcher Henderson and James P Johnson in the Harlem Symphony. Eventually his love of the stage led to studying music of Africa and writing the ballet Sahdji (also 1931), a grim tale of of love and sacrifice. To hear the dance leading up to the dagger plunge at the end, start at 13:40.
In the mid 1930s Still moved to LA from NY. He arranged film scores (Pennies From Heaven, Lost Horizon), and for TV as well (Perry Mason, Gunsmoke), but also began branching out from orchestral composition. Here is Summerland for piano (1936).
In 1949 the premiere of Still’s opera Troubled Island (set in Haiti 1791) drew tremendous reception with the composer taking 22 curtain calls. Yet New York City Opera staged the show only two more times and it was not heard again on the big stage until 2013 in Chicago. The press was not generous at the time and daughter Judith Still maintained years later that a racial fix was in for her father. “Howard Taubmann (a critic and friend of Still) came to my father and said ‘Billy, because I’m your friend I think that I should tell you this – the critics have had a meeting to decide what to do about your opera. They think the colored boy has gone far enough and they have voted to pan your opera.’ And that was it. In those days, critics had that kind of influence.”
Still’s works also met resistance from the composers and artists who sympathized with communism at a time when cold war rhetoric was at its peak in the late 40’s and 50s. A naval veteran from WWl, Still remained solidly conservative in his politics and would not succumb to the clique of his leftist colleagues. From 1946-53 he would ‘name names’ (Copland, Bernstein, Weill) during the Red Scare, causing his career to plummet even further. Though poor, he and his wife did have hundreds of friends and stayed committed to their lifetime goal of interracial understanding. His was quite a professional price to pay, but in the end William Grant Still reaped numerous awards and (8) honorary degrees for his career output of diverse compositions. His motto: “Together we rise, or not at all.”
Here is his Romance for saxophone & piano with additional commentary on Still from the performer.
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