This Day in History: October 28th

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Classical Composer William Grant Still Was Born

Legendary composer, William Grant Still, was best known for his 1931 work titled, “Afro-American Symphony.” Still made history when he became the first African American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United States. 

William Grant Still was born May 11, 1895, in Woodville, Mississippi. He was raised by his mother and grandmother in Little Rock,  Arkansas. After graduating from high school, Still attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. While at the university he spent most of his time conducting the band, learning to play the various instruments and making his initial attempts to compose and orchestrate.

He entered the world of music by playing in orchestras and would frequently work with the violin, cello and oboe. Still first studied composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then under George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. 

During his twenties, Still went on to make his first appearance as a serious composer in New York, and he also developed a friendship with fellow composer, Dr. Howard Hanson. Still was also given the Guggenheim and Rosenwald Fellowships for his works.

Still represented a lot of first for African Americans in composition. He was the first African American composer to have a work performed by a major American orchestra and have an opera performed by a major company. Still was also the first African American conductor of an American symphony and of an all-white radio orchestra. 

While accomplishing many firsts, Still also had to deal with the realities of racism during the time. His concern with the position of African Americans in U.S. society was reflected in many of his works, including one of his most notable pieces, the Afro-American Symphony. By the 1930s, Still’s compositions began to incorporate a jazz band influence. 

The historic composer wrote over 150 compositions including operas, ballets, symphonies, Negro spirituals and more. By the end of his life, Still accumulated numerous awards and honorary degrees including a Master of Music from Wilberforce; a Doctor of Music from both Howard University and Oberlin College. William Grant Still was so valued that ASCAP covered his hospitalization until his death on December 3, 1978, in Los Angeles, California.

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