William Grant Still


William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Composer, arranger, conductor




The Kennedy Center
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership

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.



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He played in the orchestra for Shuffle Along.
Florence Mills sang "Levee Land," a Still composition.
Langston Hughes wrote the libretto for Still's opera Troubled Island.
He set Countee Cullen's poem to music in Songs of Separation.
Alain Locke asked Still to write the choral ballet Sahdji (1931).
At the Black Swan label he worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, a member of the board of directors.
He played with Fletcher Henderson in the Harlem Symphony.
As music director of the Black Swan label, he worked at Pace Phonograph Company.
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