William Grant Still

Woodville, Mississippi was the birthplace of William Grant Still. He was the son Carrie Lena Fambro Still (1872-1927), and William Grant Still (1871-1895), both teachers. Grant Still was also a partner at a grocery store, and a local bandleader. When his son was three months old, his father William Grant Still Sr. passed away. All of them are the descendants of William Still, an 19th-century abolitionist. Carrie Lena Fambro Still brought her son to Little Rock, Arkansas where she taught high-school English for 33 years. Charles B. Shepperson was her husband. He nurtured William’s musical interests and took him to operettas. Red Seal recordings of classical music were also bought by William. They attended many performances by musicians on the road. He was raised in Little Rock and began violin lessons when he was 15. He learned to play the clarinet and other instruments, including double bass, cello, saxophone and oboe. His maternal grandmother sang him African-American songs. He graduated from M. W. Gibbs high school in Little Rock at the age of 16. His mother wanted him go to medical school so he pursued a Bachelor’s degree at Wilberforce University. This is a historically African college in Ohio. He became a Kappa Alpha Psi member. He was instrumental in the orchestration of the university band and learned how to play different instruments. He was still awarded scholarships to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Friedrick Lehmann, and George Whitefield Chadwick. He also studied with Edgard Varese, a modern composer. Still enlisted in the United States Navy in 1918 to fight in World War I. Still was an arranger for W.C. Handy was a member of Handy’s band, and later he played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle’s musical Shuffle Along. In his twenties, Handy was the arranger for Yamekraw. This “Negro Rhapsody”, composed by James P. Johnson, the Harlem Stride pianist. Still was an arranger of popular music in the 1930s. He wrote for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour and Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold Show. In 1936, Still led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming the first African-American to lead a major American orchestra. His first Guggenheim Fellowship was awarded to Still in 1934. It was at that time that Still began work on Blue Steele, his first opera. The New York City Opera performed Still’s opera Troubled Island in 1949. It was originally composed in 1939 and concerns Jean Jacques Dessalines, Haitian. It was the first major opera performed by an African-American. He was the first African-American to lead a major orchestra in South Carolina, the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. His works were performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra as well as the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Orchestra. Bayou Legend, an original 1941 opera by Still, was the first American-American to be performed on U.S. television. He was also the Black Swan Phonograph Companay’s recording manager. He eventually moved to Los Angeles where he was able to arrange music for films. The films included Pennies from Heaven (1936 film starring Bing Crosby, Madge Evans), and Lost Horizon (1937 film starring Sam Jaffe, Jane Wyatt, and Ronald Colman). He arranged the music for Dimitri Tiomkin’s Lost Horizon film. Still was also hired for Stormy Weather’s music arrangement, but he resigned after a few weeks because of artistic disagreements. Bio by Wikipedia

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