William Grant Still: Head in the heavens, feet on the ground

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What were the prospects that a Black child born in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1895 – the peak of the Jim Crow Era in the USA – would grow up to become one of the world’s greatest composers and yet would die almost in poverty? 

This special child died on December 3, 1978, after 83 years of sheer artistic creativity. Those who know and love his music celebrated his quasquicentennial (125 years of celebrity) in 2020.

William Grant Still was that unique child born in Woodville to schoolteacher parents William Grant Still Sr. (1871-1895), and the former Carrie Lena Fambro (1872-1927). His father died under mysterious circumstances only four months after the birth of the great musician-to-be on May 11, 1895. His mother moved to Little Rock and continued to teach school there for 33 years, but she was determined that little Willie would become a doctor and not fiddle around with music whose prospects of fair rewards for his work were remote at best, and completely absent at worst. She felt that, with music, he would be walking around with his head in the clouds while she wanted him to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground by becoming a doctor.

Still’s father had accomplished much more in his short life with music than the average doctor of his time could have dreamed of doing with medicine. He had organized a Black marching band in the Woodville area by the age 16. He developed the first band for Alcorn A & M College (now Alcorn State University) shortly after its opening in 1872. He married Carrie Lena Fambro, William’s mother, a genius in her own right, and the pair gave birth to a genius son, who would make the name William Grant Still known worldwide.

Judith Anne Still, the composer’s daughter, keeps his creative genius alive through her family’s business, William Grant Still Music, based in Flagstaff, Arizona.

“People will pin a label on a Black composer,” she said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Jackson Advocate. “But here’s how you know that some of it is just ridiculous. A lot of the times, people would hear my father’s music on the radio, and they would love it, not knowing who the composer was. Then when they find out who wrote it, they feel bad that they liked it.”


During a brief teaching stint at Alabama State College, William Grant Still Sr., taught “Father of the Blues” W. C. Handy while at the college in Florence, Alabama. A quarter-century later, Handy would hire the son as his primary arranger while based in Memphis and Clarksdale, MS, while he worked as bandleader for the Knights of Pythias organization in the years 1911-1917. At the same time, Handy also had four dance bands that toured all over under his name while he retained his home base at Memphis and Clarksdale.

 William Jr., had broken his mother’s heart when he dropped out (rather than being kicked out) of the Pre-Med program at Wilberforce in his senior year in 1915 and married the young woman, Grace Bundy, to avoid a sex-scandal that had no basis other than he and the girl were seen walking together in the woods. They were married during the years 1915 to 1939, although Still was rarely in the household because of his travels and musical demands.

Still had taught himself to play a half-dozen instruments before going to college, and he formed a music ensemble at Wilberforce in 1911 that became a model for the school’s performing arts program that continues till today. After dropping out of Wilberforce, he played with dance bands in Cleveland at night and worked at a pool hall during the day. Handy picked him up and brought him to Memphis. He later set him up as the Musical Director of the Handy and Pace Recording Studios in New York.

“Handy had tons of influence on my father,” says Judith Anne. “Handy had been faced with the situation where a lot of influential Black folk looked down on the blues. But then he wrote down the blues and everybody loved it. Black mothers especially wanted to keep their children away from what they called ‘low-down blues’. My father, however, said that the blues was about the yearning of a people striving to be free. There’s a lot of blues in The Afro-American Symphony.”

During his years with Handy, Still also gained a fellowship to study classical composition under famous conductor George Chadwick at Oberlin University. In 1923, he was rewarded with free private study sessions with avant-garde composer Edgard Varese, one of the world’s best-known creative artists of the time.


Shuffle Along, the 1921 musical comedy, broke from the caricatured imagery of blackface minstrelsy to restore authentic Black artistry to the American stage,” Jazz performer and historian Terry Waldo writes. “The production also helped propel the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century.”

The advent of Black performers on Broadway came with this musical variety piece by bandleaders Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. William Grant Still played oboe in this memorable musical ensemble that heralded in the Harlem Renaissance.

“The thing was that the creative artists and writers of Harlem began to be recognized for their greatness when Shuffle Along came to Broadway as the first all-Black production to be staged there,” says Still’s daughter, Judith Anne. “That’s what really started the Harlem Renaissance. The history books cite writer Alain Leroy Locke and the Black left-wing writers who promoted their dreams of freedom and revolution as the makers of the Harlem Renaissance. But it wasn’t that way. The Renaissance really began with the staging on Broadway of Shuffle Along. It was Black music, Black dancers, and singers who made Shuffle Along a great hit. Then the white folks came along and copied them and made them all famous and said they had invented it. But they didn’t.”


By the age of 30, Still had mastered both blues and jazz arrangement techniques, forms that some people even as late as today consider to be low-life and tacky forms of music. But Still also mastered the art of classical composition, having studied with the best-known composers of the time, especially Chadwick and Varese.

“Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera,” the Encyclopedia Britannica states. “Still is known primarily for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930), which was, until 1950, the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.

“Simultaneously, the Harlem Renaissance blossomed into a full-blown African American cultural uplift. Still did not stay within one particular musical style; his ability to study but not submit to a variety of styles hints at another purpose to his musical compositions. An examination of his correspondence with leading Harlem Renaissance figure Alain Locke reveals that Still, while proud of his heritage, foresaw the emergence of a new race, in which all the races in America would merge and become one.”


Still’s first marriage sort of faded from his life after he completed his duties with the Navy near the end of World War I. He reportedly had three children by Grace Bundy, a situation that is questioned by people from inside and outside of Still’s second family.

As an up-and-comer in the classical field, Still met and fell in love with the Jewish classical pianist Verna Arvey. Now in California in 1939, they wanted to marry but the state law banned marriages between Blacks and whites. A quick trip to Mexico, however, solved their problem. Arvey then became the most important musical support in Still’s life for the next 39 years.  

After the Afro-American Symphony (1930), he began writing the most challenging project of his life up to that point – the opera Troubled Island (1939) – an operatic portrayal of the Haitian revolution. Proud of the Caribbean island’s success as the first successful slave revolt that led to a self-ruled Black nation in the Americas, Still brought in poet-writer Langston Hughes as librettist. Their collaboration became very contentious at one point. Still’s wife Verna Arvey completed the libretto that Hughes had left in abeyance when he was invited to travel to Russia in 1938. With the opera finished in 1939, there would be no opportunity to stage it for 10 years. 

Finally, the New York City Opera Company – “the people’s opera” that was organized in 1943 – staged Troubled Island for only three performances in 1949 with all white performers wearing blackface. The white left-wing critics, for political reasons, says Judith Anne Still killed and buried Troubled Island for nearly a century, advising the aspiring Black composer to stick with jazz and blues.

“I don’t think my father ever thought that he had to show how great Black people were,” says Judith Anne Still. “He wanted to represent them as just people, equal to and equally capable as others. He was opposed to racism of any kind. In fact, he didn’t believe in races, period. He believed there was only one race and that we all came from one source.  But along the way, he realized that other people didn’t see it that way.”

Miss Still recalled the meeting of her father with the world-renown harpist Anne Mason Stockton in 1956 while working on Ennanga, a piece he envisioned for the African harp. He contacted Mason for advice on some features of the harp. She invited him to come to her home.

“The creation Ennanga is an example of the kind of racist attitudes my father had to face especially among American musicians,” Judith Anne said. “He had sent her some of the music and asked if she thought it would be a fitting piece for the harp. She invited him to her house, but when he got there, her husband wouldn’t let my father in – because of his race. They had had no idea he was Black. He was the wrong color. And they asked him to leave.

“Many years later, when I was writing my article on Ennanga, Anne Mason Stockton stated that she was the impetus behind the piece, that it was all her idea. When I wrote about this in my article, the editor wouldn’t publish the anecdote. They edited it out.” 

Despite his lifelong encounters with racism in every venue that he traveled to throughout the United States, William Grant Still retained his vision of a better world, in music, in art, in love.

“My father’s great achievement in music was to show people that there is no such thing as race in the arts as in the real world of nature,” his daughter said. “Some of our greatest people – George Washington Carver, William Grant Still – they were above everybody else in terms of their abilities and creative way of thinking.  And in that respect, they could not be placed in a category based on what they looked like, meaning the color of their skin or their ethnic identity. What they did was dramatically life-changing for every human being. But the white-powers-that-be always had to pigeon-hole people like my father. That’s why they came up with the term ‘The dean of Negro or Afro-American composers.’”

What it all boils down to, she says, is that Americans have let race block them from appreciating and enjoying the spiritually uplifting creativity of Black artists like William Grant Still. 

“What happens is that white people get angry at you when you reveal who they really are.”

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William Grant Still: Head in the heavens, feet on the ground

By Earnest McBride
February 26, 2024