Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime. Though not born in Little Rock, he spent much of his youth in the city.
Dr. Still, who wrote more than 150 compositions ranging from operas to arrangements of folk themes, is best known as a pioneer. He was the first African-American in the United States to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra.
He was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the US; the first to conduct a major symphony in the south; first to conduct a white radio orchestra in New York City; first to have an opera produced by a major company. Dr. Still was also the first African-American to have an opera televised over a national network
Dr. Still was born May 11, 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi to parents who were teachers and musicians. When Dr. Still was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock. Inspired by RCA Red Seal operatic recordings, his musical education began with violin lessons. He graduated from Gibbs High School in Little Rock.
After his studies at Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, he played in orchestras and orchestrated for various employers including the great W. C. Handy. For several years he arranged and conducted the “Deep River Hour” over CBS and WOR. He also played in the orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, which was the first Broadway musical to feature an all African-American cast and writing team.
In the 1920’s, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York. Several fellowships and commissions followed. In 1994, his “Festive Overture” captured the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra. In 1953, he won a Freedoms Foundation Award for “To You, America!” which honored West Point’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received honors for this orchestral work, “The Peaceful Land”. Dr. Still also received numerous honorary degrees from various colleges and universities, as well as various awards and a citation from Arkansas Governor Dale Bumpers in 1972.
In 1939, Dr. Still married journalist and concert pianist Verna Avery, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Dr. Still’s death in 1978. In a proclamation marking the centennial of Dr. Still’s birth, President Bill Clinton praised the composer for creating “works of such beauty and passion that they pierced the artificial barriers of race, nationality and time.”
In 1995, Dr. Still was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. In 2016, the ballroom at Robinson Center was named in his honor. In 2018, Opera in the Rock performed Still’s opera Troubled Island.