Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

William Grant Still

1895-1978 / Composer, arranger, conductor

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.