William Grant Still, Composer

Long known as the “Dean of African-American Classical Composers,” as well as one of America’s foremost composers, William Grant Still has had the distinction of becoming a legend in his own lifetime. On May 11, 1895, he was born in Woodville (Wilkinson County) Mississippi, to parents who were teachers and musicians. They were of Negro, Indian, Spanish, Irish and Scotch bloods. When William was only a few months old, his father died and his mother took him to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught English in the high school. There his musical education began–with violin lessons from a private teacher, and with later inspiration from the Red Seal operatic recordings bought for him by his stepfather.

In Wilberforce University, he took courses leading to a B.S. degree, but spent most of his time conducting the band, learning to play the various instruments involved and making his initial attempts to compose and to orchestrate. His subsequent studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music were financed at first by a legacy from his father, and later by a scholarship established just for him by the faculty.

At the end of his college years, he entered the world of commercial (popular) music, playing in orchestras and orchestrating, working in particular with the violin, cello and oboe. His employers included W. C. Handy, Don Voorhees, Sophie Tucker, Paul Whiteman, Willard Robison and Artie Shaw, and for several years he arranged and conducted the Deep River Hour over CBS and WOR. While in Boston playing oboe in the Shuffle Along orchestra, Still applied to study at the New England Conservatory with George Chadwick, and was again rewarded with a scholarship due to Mr. Chadwicks own vision and generosity. He also studied, again on an individual scholarship, with the noted ultra-modern composer, Edgard Varese.

In the Twenties, Still made his first appearances as a serious composer in New York, and began a valued friendship with Dr. Howard Hanson of Rochester. Extended Guggenheim and Rosenwald Fellowships were given to him, as well as important commissions from the Columbia Broadcasting System, the New York Worlds Fair 1939-40, Paul Whiteman, the League of Composers, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Southern Conference Educational Fund and the American Accordionists Association. In 1944, he won the Jubilee prize of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for the best Overture to celebrate its Jubilee season, with a work called Festive Overture. In 1953, a Freedoms Foundation Award came to him for his To You, America! which honored West Points Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1961, he received the prize offered by the U. S. Committee for the U. N., the N.F.M.C. and the Aeolian Music Foundation for his orchestral work, The Peaceful Land, cited as the best musical composition honoring the United Nations.

After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1930’s, citations from numerous organizations, local and elsewhere in the United States, came to the composer. Along with them came honorary degrees like the following: Master of Music from Wilberforce in 1936; Doctor of Music from Howard University in 1941; Doctor of Music from Oberlin College in 1947; Doctor of Letters from Bates College in 1954; Doctor of Laws from the University of Arkansas in 1971; Doctor of Fine Arts from Pepperdine University in 1973; Doctor of Music from the New England Conservatory of Music, the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Southern California.

Some of the awards that Still received were:  the second Harmon Award in 1927; a trophy of honor from Local 767 of the Musicians Union A.F. of M., of which he was a member; trophies from the League of Allied Arts in Los Angeles (1965) and the National Association of Negro Musicians; citations from the Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles Board of Supervisors (1963); a trophy from the A.P.P.A. in Washington D.C. (1968); the Phi Beta Sigma George Washington Carver Award (1953); the Richard Henry Lee Patriotism Award from Knotts Berry Farm, California; a citation from the Governor of Arkansas in 1972; the third annual prize of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters in 1982. He also lectured in various universities from time to time.

In 1939, Still married journalist and concert pianist, Verna Arvey, who became his principal collaborator. They remained together until Still died of heart failure on December 3, 1978.  ASCAP took care of all of Dr. Stills hospitalization until his death.

Dr. Still’s service to the cause of brotherhood is evidenced by his many firsts in the musical realm:  Still was the first Afro-American in the United States to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra. He was the first to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the United States, when in 1936, he directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in his compositions at the Hollywood Bowl. He was the first Afro-American to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South in 1955, when he directed the New Orleans Philharmonic at Southern University. He was the first of his race to conduct a White radio orchestra in New York City. He was the first to have an opera produced by a major company in the United States, when in 1949, his Troubled Island was done at the City Center of Music and Drama in New York City. He was the first to have an opera televised over a national network. With these firsts, Still was a pioneer, but, in a larger sense, he pioneered because he was able to create music capable of interesting the greatest conductors of the day: truly serious music, but with a definite American flavor.

Still wrote over 150 compositions (well over 200 if his lost early works could be counted), including operas, ballets, symphonies, chamber works, and arrangements of folk themes, especially Negro spirituals, plus instrumental, choral and solo vocal works.


A Big Honking Mystery

There are often moments where you look at a score and wonder if you are playing what the composer intended. With Gershwin’s American in Paris it turns out that we were not!

Gerswhin was painting a musical soundscape when he created American in Paris, and to really create the atmosphere of a busy Parisian street he used some non-standard instruments in his orchestration – including the taxi horn. The score requires 4 taxi horns in the percussion section with markings indicating when to play horns with ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’.

Until very recently, the belief was that the markings ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ were the pitches of the horns. Turns out that was probably not the case.

Gerswhin died 9 years after the premiere of American in Paris, but was involved in a 1929 recording that has unlocked the puzzle. The taxi horns used in the 1929 recording are the  same taxi horns Gerswhin had brought back from Paris specifically for the piece’s premiere in 1928. Turns out ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ were a short hand for which taxi horn to use.

This discovery was made by Mark Clague, musicologist at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is currently editing a critical edition of George and Ira Gershwin’s music through The Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The Gershwin Initiative, a partnership with the Gershwin family, is an ongoing examination of the Gershwin’s music initiated by Todd Gershwin, a U-M alumnus, the grandnephew of George and Ira Gershwin, and the son of Marc George Gershwin.

When listening to the February 4, 1929 Victor Recording supervised by the composer, it is clear that the circled ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ letters are not the pitches Gershwin intended. The taxi horns on this recording sound more dissonant. After further investigation, Clague argues that the correct pitches should be Ab and Bb (above middle C), high D (a third above that) and low A (a third below middle C).

The beauty of Gerswhin’s music is that playing horns tuned to ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ work incredibly well in the piece.

No matter what the intentions with the horns were, we can all agree it’s still a much loved piece of music performed multiple times a year all over the globe.

That’s definitely something to toot your horn about!


George Gerswhin

Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gershwin began his foray into music at age 11 when his family bought a secondhand piano for Gershwin’s older sibling, Ira.

A natural talent, it was Gershwin who took it up and eventually sought out mentors who could enhance his abilities. He eventually began studying with the noted piano teacher Charles Hambitzer, and apparently impressed him; in a letter to his sister, Hambitzer wrote, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”

Throughout his 23-year career, Gershwin would continually seek to expand the breadth of his influences, studying under an incredibly disparate array of teachers, including Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, Edward Kilenyi and Joseph Schillinger.

After dropping out of school at age 15, Gershwin played in several New York nightclubs and began his stint as a “song-plugger” in New York’s Tin Pan Alley.

After three years of pounding out tunes on the piano for demanding customers, he had transformed into a highly skilled and dexterous composer. To earn extra cash, he also worked as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway singers. In 1916, he composed his first published song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em; When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em.”

From 1920 to 1924, Gershwin composed for an annual production put on by George White. After a show titled “Blue Monday,” the bandleader in the pit, Paul Whiteman, asked Gershwin to create a jazz number that would heighten the genre’s respectability.

Legend has it that Gershwin forgot about the request until he read a newspaper article announcing the fact that Whiteman’s latest concert would feature a new Gershwin composition. Writing at a manic pace in order to meet the deadline, Gershwin composed what is perhaps his best-known work, “Rhapsody in Blue.”

During this time, and in the years that followed, Gershwin wrote numerous songs for stage and screen that quickly became standards, including “Oh, Lady Be Good!” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Embraceable You,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” His lyricist for nearly all of these tunes was his older brother, Ira, whose witty lyrics and inventive wordplay received nearly as much acclaim as Gershwin’s compositions.

In the 1920s, Gershwin spent time in Paris, which inspired his jazz-influenced orchestral composition An American in Paris. Composed in 1928, An American in Paris inspired the 1951 Oscar-winning movie musical by the same name, which was directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. A Broadway musical based on the film opened in 2014.

In 1935, a decade after composing “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin debuted his most ambitious composition, “Porgy and Bess.” The composition, which was based on the novel “Porgy” by Dubose Heyward, drew from both popular and classical influences. Gershwin called it his “folk opera,” and it is considered to not only be Gershwin’s most complex and best-known works but also among the most important American musical compositions of the 20th century.

Following his success with “Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin moved to Hollywood and was hired to compose the music for a film titled “Shall We Dance,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was while working on a follow-up film with Astaire that Gershwin’s life would come to an abrupt end.

At the beginning of 1937, Gershwin began to experience troubling symptoms such as severe headaches and noticing strange smells.

Doctors would eventually discover that he had developed a malignant brain tumour. On July 11, 1937, Gershwin died during surgery to remove the tumour. He was only 38.

Gershwin continues to be one of America’s most iconic composers.


Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue is a 1924 musical composition written by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band, which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. Commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman, the work premiered in a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall, New York City. Whiteman’s band performed the rhapsody with Gershwin playing the piano. Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé orchestrated the rhapsody several times including the 1924 original scoring, the 1926 pit orchestra scoring, and the 1942 symphonic scoring.

The rhapsody is one of Gershwin’s most recognizable creations and a key composition that defined the Jazz Age. Gershwin’s piece inaugurated a new era in America’s musical history, established his reputation as an eminent composer and became one of the most popular of all concert works. In the American Heritage magazine, Frederic D. Schwarz posits that the famous opening clarinet glissando has become as instantly recognizable to concert audiences as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Following the success of an experimental classical-jazz concert held with Canadian singer Éva Gauthier in New York City on November 1, 1923, bandleader Paul Whiteman decided to attempt a more ambitious feat. He asked composer George Gershwin to write a concerto-like piece for an all-jazz concert in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday to be given at Aeolian Hall. Whiteman became fixated upon performing such an extended composition by Gershwin after he collaborated with him in The Scandals of 1922. He had been especially impressed by Gershwin’s one-act “jazz opera” Blue Monday. Gershwin initially declined Whiteman’s request on the grounds that he would have insufficient time to compose the work and there would likely be a need to revise the score.

Soon after, on the evening of January 3, George Gershwin and lyricist Buddy DeSylva played a game of billiards at the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at Broadway and 52nd Street in Manhattan. George’s brother, Ira Gershwin, interrupted their billiard game to read aloud the January 4 edition of the New-York Tribune. An unsigned Tribune article entitled “What Is American Music?” about an upcoming Whiteman concert had caught Ira’s attention. The article falsely declared that George Gershwin had begun “work on a jazz concerto” for Whiteman’s concert.

The news announcement puzzled Gershwin as he had politely declined to compose any such work for Whiteman. In a telephone conversation with Whiteman the next morning, Whiteman informed Gershwin that Whiteman’s arch rival Vincent Lopez planned to steal the idea of his experimental concert and there was no time to lose. Whiteman thus finally persuaded Gershwin to compose the piece.

American in Paris – The Film

An American in Paris is a 1951 American musical romantic comedy film inspired by the 1928 jazz-influenced symphonic poem (or tone poem) An American in Paris by George Gershwin. Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron (her film debut), Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, and Nina Foch, the film is set in Paris, and was directed by Vincente Minnelli from a script by Alan Jay Lerner. The music is by George Gershwin, with lyrics by his brother Ira, with additional music by Johnny Green, and Saul Chaplin, the music directors.

The story of the film is interspersed with dance numbers choreographed by Gene Kelly and set to Gershwin’s music. MGM executive Arthur Freed bought the Gershwin musical catalog from George’s brother Ira in the late 1940s, since George died in 1937. Some of the tunes in this catalog were included in the movie, such as “I Got Rhythm” and “Love Is Here to Stay”. Other songs in the movie include “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise” and “‘S Wonderful”. The climax of the film is “The American in Paris” ballet, a 17-minute dialogue-free dance featuring Kelly and Caron set to Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with sets designed in the styles of various French artists. The ballet sequence cost almost half a million dollars to shoot.[5] It was filmed on 44 sets in MGM’s back lot. According to Leslie Caron in a 2009 interview on Paul O’Grady’s interview show, the film ran into controversy with the Hays Office over part of her earlier dance sequence with a chair; the censor viewing the scene called it “sexually provocative”, which surprised Caron, who answered “What can you do with a chair?”

An American in Paris was an enormous success, garnering eight Academy Award nominations and winning six (including Best Picture), as well as earning other industry honors. In 1993, it was selected for preservation by the United States Library of Congress in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It is ranked number nine among AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals.

American in Paris

An American in Paris is a jazz-influenced symphonic poem by the American composer George Gershwin, written in 1928. Inspired by the time Gershwin had spent in Paris, it evokes the sights and energy of the French capital in the 1920s and is one of his best-known compositions.

Gershwin composed An American in Paris on commission from the conductor Walter Damrosch. He scored the piece for the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra plus celesta, saxophones, and automobile horns. He brought back some Parisian taxi horns for the New York premiere of the composition, which took place on December 13, 1928 in Carnegie Hall, with Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic. Gershwin completed the orchestration on November 18, less than four weeks before the work’s premiere.

Gershwin collaborated on the original program notes with the critic and composer Deems Taylor, noting that: “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere.” When the tone poem moves into the blues, “our American friend … has succumbed to a spasm of homesickness.” But, “nostalgia is not a fatal disease.” The American visitor “once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life” and “the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”

The Genius of William Grant Still

Called “the Dean of African-American composers”, William Grant Still (1895–1978) worked in all genres of music – from jazz to Broadway musicals to modern classical music (he studied in New York with Edgard Varèse, who encouraged Still to find his own voice as a composer, explore his black heritage and exploit his talent for melody). Still achieved many firsts for an African-American – the first to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra; first to conduct a major orchestra; first to conduct an orchestra in the Deep South; first to have an opera (‘Troubled Island’) produced by a major company; and first to have an opera (‘A Bayou Legend’) broadcast on television (posthumously in 1981).

Like his contemporary George Gershwin, Still successfully mixed the idioms of jazz with classical music. In his Suite for Violin and Piano, the third movement contains a syncopated violin line and a jazz piano style called stride. His African-American Symphony is infused with the blues of the Deep South. More subtle than Gershwin’s ‘Broadway jazz’, Still used the African American elements not simply for orchestral colour but places them at the heart of the work. The symphony boasts rich harmonies, brilliant orchestration, jazz-inflected rhythms in a work which can easily stand up against the best of the genre. There is sweetness and sadness, depression and joy, and a beautiful, heart-rending finale. His piano music, notably Three Visions, demonstrates his remarkable talent for blending and contrasting colours to support a melody with wonderful subtlety, and the spiritual qualities of this music, most evident in ‘Summerland’, are on a par with the late piano music of Beethoven or Schubert.

Still’s musical language was not bound to one genre, nor did he set out to write distinctly “African-American” music, and he firmly believed that one should be a master of all styles. Some of his music displays distinctly modernist idioms, especially that written in the latter part of his life, while his experiences as an orchestrator and pit musician informed his later compositions and led to his success in both popular and art music.

The SSO is thrilled to perform Still’s Symphony No 1 on February 10th as part of our concert Roaring Twenties – see it live or stream it from home!

Join us at the Hub

The concert ends, you exit TCU Place, and you’re still brimming with excitement after such a fabulous evening. Where to next?

Cross the street and join us over at the Hub at Holiday Inn!

It’s the perfect place to grab a post-concert drink, and snack, alongside fellow SSO patrons, musicians, and the feature guest artists.

We have complimentary appetizers on a first come first-serve basis!