A man of many talents, William Grant Still renounced his medical
studies to pursue a career in music. He taught himself to play every
instrument in the orchestra, from violin to cello and from oboe to
saxophone. The scale of his musical knowledge paved the way for Still
to become a skilled and prolific composer.
In 1931, with the premiere performance of Still's Afro-American
Symphony, he became the first African-American composer to write
a symphony performed by an American orchestra. Over the next 20 years,
38 orchestras in the United States and Europe would have the honor
of playing Afro-American Symphony.
Still is best known as a composer, but he played a range of other
roles in the music industry. In 1916, for example, he served as an
arranger for blues musician W. C. Handy. In New York, Still played
alongside jazz greats Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson in the
Harlem Symphony. He later was named music director of the Black Swan
jazz label, a subsidiary of Harry Pace's Phonograph Company, which
billed itself as "The Only Genuine Colored Record."
In the sort of creative crossovers that typified the Harlem Renaissance,
Still frequently collaborated with leading black intellectuals from
other disciplines. After Alain Locke suggested that Katharine Garrison
Chapin's wrenching poem about a lynching could and should be set to
music, Still composed the cantata "And They Lynched Him on a
Tree." He also wrote the melody for poems by Langston Hughes
and Countee Cullen. Afro-American Symphony included poems
by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
On many of Still's projects, a compatible music partner was conveniently
close by. In 1936, for instance, he composed the music for the ballet
Lenox Avenue, which used dance to depict aspects of Harlem
life. The script for the ballet was contributed by another accomplished
musician, Verna Arvey—Still's wife.