Little Rock Culture Vulture

Cultural events, places and people in the Little Rock area


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Little Rock Look Back: Dr. William Grant Still

Long known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

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 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.


Little Rock Look Back: William Grant Still

bhm StillLong known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

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 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.  A musical is currently on Broadway about the creation of that musical, but Still is not a character in it.

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.


Robinson Redux March

Blackstone adWhile Robinson Center Music Hall is closed for renovations, the Culture Vulture blog is taking a look back at previous bookings in the facility each month.

March 1940 was the first full month that Robinson Auditorium was open.  The month started with Blackstone the magician in performances from March 2 through 4. In addition to his appearance touted by the auditorium, Muswick Beverage & Cigar Company promoted his appearance, and the fact that he endorsed Budweiser beer.  Later that month, appearances included the Shrine Circus, the AAU girls basketball championship, and the Saint Louis Symphony.

March 1950 was a particularly busy month. It featured singer Vaughn Monroe on the 6th and the Arkansas State Symphony playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the 7th.  On the lower level, a circus took up residency from the 7th through 10th.  Back upstairs in the music hall, Ballet Theatre visited performing Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” featuring ballerina Nora Kaye and conductor Max Goberman.  The month concluded on the 27th with James Dunn starring in the Pulitzer Prize winning Harvey.

In 1955, Jose Greco and His Spanish Dancers entertained audiences on March 7. Five years later, the Chicago Ballet was featured on March 26, 1960. Earlier that month (the 16th), Max Rudolf conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. March 1965 feautured the Chicago Opera Ballet (on the 2nd) and an evening of country music stars including Buck Owens and Kitty Wells (on the 10th).

In March 1970, the national tour of the Broadway musical Mame starring Sheila Smith launched the month on the 6th and 7th. Later that month The Florida Boys were in concert. March 1975 saw much activity at Robinson Center. Guy Lombardo and his orchestra appeared on the 2nd and Richard Fredricks, baritone, gave a recital on the 4th, under the auspices of the Community Concert Series. On March 5 & 6, a statewide touring production of South Pacific played at Robinson. Produced by Vince Insalaco, it starred Judy Pryor (now Judy Trice) as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush. The month closed out with the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof.

March 1980 saw Dawn Wells starring in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two on the 8th. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra performed on the 15th and 16th with pianist Lorin Hollander as guest artist. Five years later, Marilyn Horne appeared with the ASO on March 2, 1985. At the same time that evening, the Shriners Ball was taking place on the lower level. Later that month a national tour of Sophisticated Ladies stopped by Robinson on the 12th. The ASO returned on March 20 & 21 with pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

The Sharks and the Jets lept on the stage on March 20, 1990, as a tour of West Side Story came to Robinson Center. The month concluded with pianist Jose Carlos Cocarelli in concert with the ASO.

Marilyn Horne returned to Little Rock, ten years and one day after her previous appearance, and performed with the ASO again on March 3, 1995. The month also included The Will Rogers Follies on March 10-12, Jazz Explosion II (with George Duke, Dianne Reeves, Phil Perry, Howard Hewett, and George Howard) on March 15, and the ASO in concert with cellist Jeffrey Solow on March 18 & 19. On March 22, the musical Raisin was performed. The cast included Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and Lynette Hawkins.

As the 2000s rolled around, Robinson Center continued to feature an eclectic mix. In March 2000, Ann Hampton Callaway performed with the ASO on March 4 & 5. Later that month the original cast of Red, White & Tuna played at Robinson from March 14 through 19. In 2005, the national tour of Mamma Mia! played at Robinson from March 1-6. Later that month the ASO performed Broadway a la Carte with an eveningn of songs from the Great White Way (on March 18 & 19).

In 2010, the ASO performed a concert version of Porgy & Bess on March 12 & 13. It was the first time that title had ever been performed in its entirity in Arkansas. Irish dance took the stage the next night as Lord of the Dance took up residence at Robinson Center.


Black History Month Spotlight: William Grant Still

bhm StillLong known as the Dean of African American composers, Dr. William Grant Still was a legend in his own lifetime.

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 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.

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.

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.  For more on William Grant Still and other inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, visit the permanent exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.