Reappraising William Grant Still

Wm Grant Still

Behold, a composer: now, as in his lifetime, celebrated as “The Dean of African American Composers,” yet in many ways still misunderstood. Handsome, dapper, and extremely bright, William Grant Still (1895-1978) lived a life simultaneously in public and in the shadows. In many ways, his fame came with a caveat. As “Dean of African American Composers,” he was not Dean of American composers. Raised in Woodville, Mississippi, both of his parents were teachers, although his father also worked in a local grocery store. Their heritage was of mixed blood: African-American, Scotch, Irish, American Indian and Spanish. His father died suddenly at age 24, when William was only three months old. His mother, Carrie, took her baby with her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught high school English for 33 years. There, she met and married Charles B. Shepperson, who was a wonderful stepfather to young William. Shepperdson noted his musical talent early and nurtured it, buying several Victor Red Seal records of classical music and taking him to local concerts whenever he could. Something of a late bloomer, William started violin lessons at age 15, but also taught himself how to play the oboe, double bass, viola, cello, clarinet and saxophone. His other musical influences during those years would stay with him for the rest of his life, notably the ragtime, blues, cakewalks and Spanish dances he heard.

Still was so precocious that he was able to graduate high school at age 16, whereupon he wanted to go to college—a daunting goal for a young African-American in 1911—but his grades were so good that he was snapped up by Wilberforce University in Ohio. Since his mother thought he would never make it in the current racially-skewered environment as a classical musician, she insisted that he study to be a doctor, thus he took up a Bachelor of Science course of study. But music kept pulling him away from medicine; he conducted the university band, learned various instruments and began to compose and write orchestrations. His talents were so notable that he was awarded a scholarship to Oberlin College.

Still enlisted in the Army in 1918 and served in World War I. Upon his release from the service in 1919, he worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s orchestra and played in the pit band of the big Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake hit show, Shuffle Along. He then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music with conservative Romantic composer George Whitfield Chadwick and avant-garde modernist Edgard Varese. Falling under Varese’s spell, many of his earliest mature works were exceptionally modern, but within a few years he felt that he was not being true to himself and so reverted to a more tonal style, incorporating Negro folk tunes, cakewalks, rags and spirituals into his work.

His first big breakthrough was Dark America in 1925, but it was his Symphony No. 1, subtitled “Afro-American Symphony,” that really put him on the map in 1930. By this time he had written some interesting arrangements for popular white bandleaders, i.e. a concert version of St. Louis Blues for Don Voorhees and two pretty advanced versions of the popular songs Poor Butterfly and Limehouse Blues for Red Nichols. But jazz as an art form held little appeal for him. As someone who through-composed everything, even when ragtime or the blues was its influence, Still was uncomfortable with the concept of freewheeling instant improvisations. It took him nearly a decade to become attuned to individual musicians playing their own variations on his themes; thus, jazz per se was never a strong influence on his work except as it pertained to the blues. It has never been recorded what he thought of Duke Ellington’s work, which managed to dovetail written themes with improvisation, but it’s telling that he never wrote a single arrangement for a black jazz orchestra, not even the well-known bands of Earl Hines, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie or Billy Eckstine. Basie’s freewheeling, open-arrangement style could not have appealed to him very much.

The “Afro-American Symphony” caught the attention of fellow-composer Howard Hanson, then music director at the Rochester-Eastman School of Music, and it was there that the work was premiered in 1931. It was an instant success, which led to Hanson performing his ballet Sahdji the same year. With Sahdji, however, a trend began to make itself apparent. Mixed in with some truly original and inventive music, Still also wrote sentimental tunes in a popular style. This was to become his one weakness, a tendency to combine the artistic with the commonplace. It was probably his own proclivity to do so, but it often undermined the structure of his pieces. The same weakness, I hasted to point out, did not afflict the classical pieces of African-American composers John Lewis or Ornette Coleman, nor the jazz-classical hybrids of Charles Mingus, George Russell or J.J. Johnson.

But the general musical public responded to Still’s music with great enthusiasm, and he slowly but surely became more famous, his arranging and writing skills in demand. He became an arranger for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour and “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold program in the early ‘30s, then moved to California where he became an arranger for films. These included such box-office hits as the Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven (1936) and Lost Horizon (1937), where he scored the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. He became the first African-American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 1936, and a year later received a commission from the WPA to write a ballet on the life of blacks in New York, which he titled Lenox Avenue. He was also fortunate enough to be able to record this work under his own direction with the Los Angeles WPA Symphony.

At this moment, we need to step back and inspect what Still was attempting to do, and compare that with its realization in sound by others. With his rich background in the African-American musical vernacular, Still wrote music that was, although not jazz, intended to be played in a jazzy manner. His recording of Lenox Avenue points this out quite clearly. He was most proud of the section that included a spiritual and an original blues, the latter built around an ostinato figure played by the French horns (a gently rocking alternation of two notes in the key of F (initially A-G, A-G, A-G, but shifting as he moved into the dominant 7th) over which the piano and clarinets played the principal theme. Eventually a trumpet section outburst, buttressed by strings, played a variant on the piano’s theme, with the cymbals playing a backbeat against it. This hypnotic riff tune became so popular that, three years later, he expanded it into a six-minute piece for Artie Shaw’s orchestra, leaving spots open for short solos. Some critics felt that Still was “slumming,” but no such thing. It took me a long time to realize, by listening to and comparing various recordings of his music, that this bluesy “feel” was not only intentional in this piece but in fact in all of his concert music. In other words, most conductors, then as now, played it incorrectly because neither they nor their musicians in the orchestras they led could “feel” a blues or ragtime rhythm properly. In short, most classical musicians play his music too primly, and without that blues-ragtime swagger, Still’s music fails to make its proper impact.

I bring up the Blues from the Lenox Avenue Suite because it is such a glaring example. Nowadays you generally hear it played by a violin-piano duo: the tempo is slowed way down so that it sounds more like a funeral dirge than the blues, the hypnotic two-note riff is often omitted, and the violinist takes excruciating pains to play the flatted third as if just producing the note was causing him or her great suffering. Who plays it today the way Still himself or Shaw did? I haven’t heard it.

Another example, and a very important one, is the “Afro-American Symphony.” There are several performances of it available on YouTube, including those by Neeme Järvi, John Jeter, Anthony Parnther, Marion Daniel, Bethany Pfluger, Adam Riccinto and Orlando Cela, but the only one that captures the right swagger of the piece is a version by the New Trier High School Symphony Orchestra conducted by one Peter Rosheger. And the difference isn’t minor or insignificant; the Rosheger performance really swings. The others don’t have a prayer of doing so. And the listeners’ reactions as recorded in the comments (such as those below the Järvi performance) are typical: “Sounds just like Gershwin”…“Amazing! So soothing to the ear.”…”EASY LISTENING!”

Well, it’s not supposed to be entirely easy listening, folks. That’s just the point. And it’s also not supposed to sound just like Gershwin.

In short: most of the performances you’ve probably heard of Still’s music, even by such great and famous artists as George Szell, Pierre Monteux, Howard Hanson, Rachel Barton Pine and Neeme Järvi, are simply too polite-sounding. They water down Still’s original concepts as much as listening to, say Arthur Fiedler conducting Duke Ellington. You need to hear Still’s music played by musicians, white or black, who have some rhythm in their soul in order to appreciate it.

The situation is analogous to a comedy skit done many years ago by the Canadian satirists on Second City TV. A white music director, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and buck teeth, is leading his chorus in a series of songs he calls “white scat singing.” This includes such tunes as Abba Dabba Honeymoon and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral, with the chorus flailing their arms and moving around as they sing. The whole concept is, of course, absurd, but I seriously wonder if the classical musicians who “straighten out” and “whiten up” Still’s essentially black rhythms and motifs realize what damage they’re doing to his music. Ironically, there don’t seem to be many African-American classical musicians who take much of an interest in Still’s music. I’ve found very few performances by black musicians of any of his scores on YouTube or in the discography, particularly of the orchestral works.

For those who’d like to know Still’s music the way Still conceived it, here are links to the best versions I’ve heard:

Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” (1930) / The New Trier High School Symphony Orchestra; Peter Rosheger, conductor. Ironic that the hippest, loosest performance comes from an orchestra of young white musicians from Winnetka, Illinois, but there you are.

Lenox Avenue: Spiritual and Blues (1937) / The Los Angeles WPA Symphony Orchestra; William Grant Still, conductor. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-w3CRWAlMtY, move the cursor to about 11:16, and listen to the Spiritual and Blues (runs about six and a half minutes). I have no way of knowing how many Africa-American musicians were in this orchestra, but the gospel choir certainly sounds black.

Suite for Violin and Piano / Timothy Schwarz, violinist; Daniel Weiser, pianist. The only performance I’ve heard with guts, though the recording balance favors the pianist.

Ennanga (1956) / Ann Hobson Pilot, harpist; Videmus Ensemble – Still wrote this piece under the influence of the African harp, transcribing some of its effects for a conventional harp. It’s not quite as African-sounding as I might have liked, but spirited enough to give the right impression, particularly in Pilot’s wonderful solo work.

Frisco Jazz Band Blues / The Azusa Pacific University Chamber Wind Ensemble. A little-known and unusual work by Still, simulating the slightly off-kilter rhythmic playing of West Coast black blues bands of the late 1910s, probably written while he was W.C. Handy’s band arranger. The APU wind ensemble miraculously captures this archaic jazz-blues style with its funky and slightly off-kilter ragtime rhythms.

Africa: III. Land of Superstition / American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor. The first two parts of this suite are rather romantic-sounding and unremarkable, but the third section is highly imaginative. Today it is often played by solo pianists who don’t have a clue what to do with the music. Botstein doesn’t always capture the “feel” of Still’s music right, but in this performance he is really very good.

Danzas de Panama: 4. Cumbia e Congo (1953) / Cincinnati Conservatory of Music Encore Advanced Chamber Orchestra; Jaime Morales-Matos, conductor. Not one of Still’s most imaginative works, but a piece built around an insistent Afro-Caribbean rhythm, conducted with great brio by Morales-Matos.

So there’s your crash course on William Grant Still. Poke around and listen to other music by him, and if you find any performances that match these in looseness and rhythmic verve, email me and let me know! (Email address on my home page.)

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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