William Grant Still: African American Composer, Arranger, Conductor

Written by Jae Jones

William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi on May 11, 1895. He was the son of two teachers, Carrie Lena Fambro Still and William Grant Still. Still was just an infant when his father died, his mother then took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where they lived with her mother. She taught high school English there for 33 years. During William’s childhood, Carrie married Charles B. Shepperson, a postal clerk. He bought many rpm records of opera, which Still greatly enjoyed.

Still later attended M. W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock and graduated in 1911 as class valedictorian.  After graduation, he attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. Although his family thought he would pursue an education in medicine, his interest in music led him to leave Wilberforce without graduating in order to play in bands and orchestras in Ohio.

In 1916, Still was in Memphis, Tennessee, where he met blues musician W. C. Handy, who provided Still with the opportunity to arrange and perform with his band. The following year, he entered the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to pursue a formal education in music. Still’s education was interrupted by World War I, during which he served in the U.S. Navy. He served as a mess hall attendant and violinist for officers’ meals. He returned to Oberlin after his discharge, but did not receive a degree.

In 1919, he relocated to Harlem in New York City, where he worked for the Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company and performed with bands and orchestras. Still later met Paul Whiteman, who hired him to arrange music. When Whiteman took his orchestra to Hollywood in May 1929, Still accompanied him. During the course of a year, Still completed more than 100 arrangements for Whiteman.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Still had much success in his musical career. On November 20, 1935, the New York Philharmonic performed Still’s Afro-American Symphony at Carnegie Hall.  He remained active up until his health started to decline in 1970. Still died in 1978.



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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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