William Grant Still’s Birthday: African American Classical Composer

This is the birthday of the very talented William Grant Still, the first African American composer and conductor of classical music to get much national recognition in the US. He was the grandson of enslaved African Americans and faced both poverty and much racial discrimination in his relatively long life. According to Wikipedia’s summary he composed more than 150 compositions:220px-Grantstill (Photo: wikipedia)

He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He is often referred to as “the dean” of African-American composers.

He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and celebrated and advocated for jazz and blues as central music for African Americans and US society as a whole. His first and famous first symphony, the Afro-American, was composed in 1930. It was performed the next year by the Rochester Symphony. It makes use of the long African American musical heritage, including the blues, much other rhythmic material such as that of jazz, and the tenor banjo. It also makes use of the African American poet, Paul Dunbar’s, poetry. Sample the symphony here.

Why is it not surprising that such a very talented American musician and his music are all but forgotten in this country, including in our history textbooks?

Here is a website dedicated to him. Here is another great site too, AfriClassical.com, with its blog here.


  1. andi

    It is horrible that such great talent is so frequently ignored. Unfortunately I have come to have personal understanding of this type of thing in that a very good friend of mine, Terrence Wilson, who was once described as “one of the biggest pianistic talents to have emerged in this country in the past 25 years.” (Baltimore Sun) has yet to preform in New York City’s own Philharmonic (Terrence’s hometown is the Bronx)- they have never had him perform. His recent recording with the Nashville Symphony, Deus ex Machina even has as part of the piece, Train of Tears, which recalls Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train- yet how much do we hear of this in classical music circles?
    Also, The Ritz Chamber Players, a group intended to “foster the appreciation of chamber music through performances and educational outreach featuring preeminent African-American musicians and composers, with an emphasis on building audiences and arts inclusion that reflects our diverse society.” remains largely unknown.


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