Harlem World Presents’ the World Premiere Recordings on the Naxos Label Performed by the Fort Smith Symphony. Conducted by Music Director John Jeter, the recording showcases major orchestral works by the Great American Composer William Grant Still (photo below is from the new CD $9.98) .
William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an African-American classical composer who wrote more than 150 compositions. He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He is often referred to as “the dean” of African-American composers. William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. He was theson of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872-1927) and William Grant Still (1871-1895), who was also a partner in a grocery store and performed as a local bandleader in his free time. They were of mixed origin: African-American, Native American, Spanish and Anglo. His father, William Grant Still Sr., died when William was 3 months old and his mother, Carrie Lena Fambro Still, took him to Little Rock, Arkansas where she married Charles B. Shepperson and taught high school English for 33 years. Shepperson, his stepfather, nurtured his musical interests by taking him to operettas and buying Red Seal recordings of classical music which the boy greatly enjoyed. The two attended a number of performances by musicians on tour. William Still grew up in Little Rock, and there William started violin lessons at age 14. The youth also taught himself how to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola, and showed a great interest in music. 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.
His mother wanted him to go to medical school, so Still pursued a Bachelor of Science degree program at Wilberforce University, founded as an African-American school, in Ohio. He conducted the university band, learned to play various instruments and started to compose and to do orchestrations. He also studied with Friedrich Lehmann at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on scholarship. He later studied with George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory again on scholarship, and then with the ultra-modern composer, Edgard Varèse.
Still initially composed in the modernist style, but later merged musical aspects of his African-American heritage with traditional European classical forms to form a unique style. In 1931 his Symphony No. 1 was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Howard Hanson, making him the first African-American composer to receive such attention. In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra.
In 1949 his opera Troubled Island was performed by the New York City Opera and became the first opera by an African-American to be performed by a major company. In 1955 he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra and became the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still’s works were also performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra. He was the first African-American to have an opera performed on national[where?] television. Additionally, he was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Company.
Between 1919 and 1921, Still worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical “Shuffle Along.” Later in the twenties, he served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a ” Negro Rhapsody ” composed by the noted Harlem Stride Pianist, James P. Johnson. In the 1930s Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison’s “Deep River Hour”, and Paul Whiteman’s “Old Gold Show”, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts.
Still eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, where he arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven (the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans) and Lost Horizon (the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe). For Lost Horizon he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. Still was also hired to arrange the music for the film Stormy Weather but left the assignment after a few weeks due to artistic disagreements.
William Grant Still received two Guggenheim Fellowships. He also was awarded honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, Wilberforce University, Howard University, Bates College, the University of Arkansas, Pepperdine University, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Southern California.
Still married Verna Arvey, a journalist and concert pianist, in 1939. They remained together until he died of heart failure in Los Angeles, California, in 1978.
Text from wikipedia.com and photo by Harlem photographer Carl Van Vechten.
cd at $9. 98