- William Grant Still
This recent installment in the American Composers Series summarizes the life and career of the African American composer and arranger William Grant Still (1895–1978) in a format that is accessible even to general readers. Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas by his mother after his father's untimely death, Still was a member of the elite class of blacks in the South in the early twentieth century. His mother, a college-educated English teacher, demanded much of her son, pushing him to make a significant contribution to society through education, hard work, and perseverance, envisioning his entering a medical profession. Instead he was unequivocally drawn to music, and it was his passion for composing, arranging, performing, and conducting that would create an impact. Ultimately, William Grant Still followed in the footsteps of the musical father he never knew, earning the distinction "Dean of African American Composers."1
Catherine Parsons Smith (1933–2009) captures her subject's passion for music and describes many of his accomplishments in the field over a long, varied, and distinguished career.2 Smith highlights Still's ability to support himself through performing and arranging commercial music, so that he could compose symphonies, [End Page 507] ballets, and operas—his heart's delight, though not as financially rewarding. She focuses primarily on Still's early life in Arkansas, Ohio, and New York, condensing the years in Los Angeles after 1934. Through a dramatic retelling of the specific story of the 1949 performance of his opera Troubled Island, based on Langston Hughes' libretto from his play Drums of Haiti, and a well-written chapter on the effects on the composer's career of the politics of the McCarthy era, Smith documents some of the complexities of Still's life in California and the challenges he faced in distancing himself from the classical music establishment in the East.
As an American of mixed race, Still was not afraid to use his extensive education and considerable talents to conquer certain bastions of European culture, for example, Oberlin, New York, theaters, orchestra halls, and opera houses, yet this humble man did not overtly emphasize his "blackness." Highly educated and privileged in his social status, Still was quite new to the contemporary world of black music played in honkytonks, dives, and juke joints when he joined W.C. Handy's performing bands in 1916. As an outsider he nonetheless recognized in the blues "a unique musical creation of Negroes … [and he] wanted to dignify it through using it in major symphonic composition."3 Striving to bring his African heritage into the mainstream by using black musical idioms in European-style concert music forms, Still achieved expression of his ideals in the arts scene of the Harlem Renaissance, where his role has been documented by Gayle Murchison, Samuel A. Floyd Jr., and others.4
These early years define Still's approach to his work and solidify his place among his contemporaries, both black and white. However, this period needs more thorough research, as Smith herself would readily admit. In her preface she declares that this book is "far from the whole story, either about Still himself or the place of his body of work in our culture," acknowledging that this is her "first attempt at a biography of Still" (ix).5 Still's later years in Los Angeles, for which his family has preserved much material, also deserve more exploration, especially his larger symphonic and operatic works and his music for film.
The "Notes" section (95–101) at the end of this volume reveals careful documentation, using some new sources, while drawing heavily on Smith's previous publication of collected essays and on this reviewer's chronological sketch of Still's life in the Bio-Bibliography. Following "Notes" is a list "For Further Reading" that will provide the more serious reader with a rich body of information regarding other scholarship on Still.
When taken in the broader context of contemporary Still research, several of Smith...