Considered by many as the dean of African American composers,William Grant Still, the son of educators, was born in Woodville, Mississippi onMay 11, 1895. His father, a musician whoonce taught music at Alabama A&M College,died when he was an infant; his mother, a schoolteacher, moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. Those nearest to him encouraged his early fascinationwith music and musical instruments, particularly the violin. At age 17 his stepfather, a railway office worker,introduced him to opera via a record and phonograph, which for him was a transformativeexperience. At M.W. Gibbs High School inLittle Rock, Still was senior class valedictorian. Though he entered Wilberforce College in Ohioat age 16 as a pre-med student, he taught himself to play several instruments andcomposed his own musical pieces which were performed by the school band, which heconducted, and a string quartet he assembled and participated in as cellist. Close to graduation, Still dropped out of Wilberforceto pursue a career as a musician but later studied music at the Oberlin Conservatoryin 1917 and again in 1919 after a year in the Navy.
Still veered from classical music into the popular music of the era derived fromblack culture—namely ragtime, jazz, and blues—and for a while toured with the legendarybandleader W.C. Handy, arranging someof Handy’s hits like “St. Louis Blues.” Bythe early 1920s Still was in New York Citywriting musical arrangements for the theater, working as musical director of Black Swan Record Company, and, with a rekindledinterest in classical music, he took composition lessons from George Chadwick andEdgard Varese.
On October 28, 1931, Still’s best known composition, Afro-American Symphony, infused with black musical signatures, was performedby the Rochester Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Howard Hanson, thus becomingthe first work of its kind by a black to be performed by a major symphony orchestra. Numerous successes in both classical and popularmusic continued into the 1960s, among them his direction of