Everyone knows the names of the Civil Rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X. Rosa Parks. Jackie Robinson. Even lesser known names like Billy Graham. But I guarantee you that this one is a name you've never heard of. Unlike the other names here, he wasn't a leader, per se, but he was a symbol of hope in the darkness, at the forefront of racial change in America and around the world, and helped create the more tolerant and open world we live in today.
He wasn't a preacher, though. He wasn't a speaker, either. He wasn't even an athlete. No, he changed the world in his own way, through his music. This man, born in 1895 in Mississippi, would go on to be one of the most prominent American composers, let alone African American composers, of the 20th century. That man is William Grant Still.
Still was born on May 11, 1895, to his mother, Carrie Lena Fambro Still, and his father, William Grant Still, Sr. Things weren't great for Still from the beginning, being born in Mississippi in the time of Jim Crow and all. Things only got worse for him when, before he was even two months old, his father died, forcing him and his mother to move to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be with his grandmother, his mother's mother. It was here that Still developed his love of music, mainly from the church music and hymns his grandmother would sing around the house and later from the violin lessons that his mother's second husband, Charles Benjamin Shepperson, gave him.
After he graduated from high school in 1911 as valedictorian of his class, he attended Wilberforce University, only to drop out just before the fall 1915 semester and marry his first wife, Grace Bundy, in October of that year. He moved with his new wife to Memphis where he met blues musician WC Tandy, who invited the musically-gifted Still to join his group and write music for them, a gig Still would do until he enrolled in Oberlin College in 1916.
He wouldn't spend much time in Oberlin, for he would enlist in the Navy following the United States' involvement in World War I, during which he served as an attendant to the galley of the ship. Following the war, he went back to Oberlin but didn't complete his degree, and instead moved to Harlem in 1919.
It was here that Still began the greatest chapter of his life.
It was during this time that he began to devote himself to his music, writing many of his early classics and learning from some of the most prolific musical minds of his time, including George Whitefield Chadwick, then-director of the New England Music Conservatory, and Edgard Varese, who would later go on to be one of the first composers to embrace electronic music.
In 1929, he was hired by Paul Whiteman to write for and perform in his score band, a group of musicians that perform music for films and radio productions. Not long after he hired Still, Whiteman moved his group from New York to Hollywood to be more close to the growing film industry there. However, Still would go back and forth from Hollywood to New York during this time. It was also during this time that Still would complete his greatest achievement.
You have to understand something if you want to realize how impactful Still was. Think about some of today's music, the music you listen to daily. That's not the music Still wrote. However, if you compare today's music to the music of, say, the 50's, you'd start to realize how revolutionary Still's sound was. Rather than just being one sound or variations on that sound, Still would shift all over the place, including instruments from different genres of music that had no business being in his compositions, and create fusions never heard before at the time. Nowhere did he most exemplify this more than in his greatest piece, "Symphony No. 1, 'Afro-American.'"
For the first time to the general public, the sounds of rhythm, blues, and jazz were integrated with the more classical sounds most people were used to. Factor in that this was released in 1930, the height of the Great Depression, and many people reacted very favorably to this new kind of sound that Still had created. In 1931, "Afro-American Symphony" was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, which may not seem too significant today, but at the time, this was unheard of.
With their first performance of the piece, Still became the first African American to have a piece he composed performed by a major orchestra in America. When the group went on tour in Europe from 1932-33, his "Afro-American Symphony" was the highlight of every performance, making him the first African American to have a piece performed in Europe. A few years later, he would gain the same feat for Asia when it was performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic.
He would go on to have other firsts as well, including being the first African American to conduct a major orchestra, the first African American to have an opera he wrote performed by a major opera company, and so on. While he would never write anything as successful as "Afro-American" again, Still had still left his impact on the racial landscape of music at the time.
He received many accolades throughout his life, but his favorite and most coveted was his being called "The Dean of Afro-American Music." Before Still, African Americans were mainly restricted to playing music other people had written in clubs they wouldn't be allowed into if they weren't performing. The only time you even saw an African American involved in music as if he was part of a traveling band or in a big band at some club. Then Still came along and changed everything.
His musical stylings of combining two different types of music would go on to define a generation of composers both here in America and abroad and continue to influence everyone from Kanye to Bruno Mars today. His use of new, unfamiliar sounds and embrace of jazz and blues paved the way for the early days of rock and roll to sweep the U.S. and the world following World War II and eventually evolve into the music we still love today. Without Still, none of the music we have today would exist. No Taylor Swift, no Eminem, no Drake, no Beyonce, nothing. But that's not Still's only impact.
Without him laying the groundwork, there could very well be no African American musicians today, or musicians from any minority for that matter. Again, before Still, an African American in music was just there to play music and make some white people happy. Still, however, legitimized the right of the minority to do what they want to do and opened up a previously segregated world to the talented people who deserved to be there just as much as the white people who hadn't let them in. He was Jackie Robinson before Jackie Robinson. Still broke the musical color barrier, and the sounds that came from it were absolutely beautiful.
In 1939, Still divorced his first wife and then, two days later, married his second, singer-songwriter, Verna Avery. At the time in California (where Still had been living full-time since 1934) interracial marriage was still illegal so they were forced to be married in Mexico. Still would continue to compose, play, teach, and perform throughout the rest of his life. By 1970, the 75-year-old man began to fall ill and was placed in a nursing home full time, passing away there in 1978 at the age of 83. However, despite his passing, his impact on music both here and everywhere else is still felt to this day, and the message he represented was one that will reverberate for the rest of time.
He was an African American born in the Deep South during the height of segregation, had no father, had no college degree, had served in the war, and already had a family to take care of. Every card he could've been dealt to make his hand worse he got, and yet, despite all of the odds and everything stacked against him, William Grant Still came out on top and, in the process, changed the future of America.
His was a message that every minority, everyone everywhere oppressed, could hear and understand and be inspired by. Even if you're out of luck, even if you're being held back, even if everything is trying to beat you down so you can't stand up, you can still do what you love, do what you've always wanted to do, because nothing can keep you down forever. You just need to keep on pushing and, one day, you might just make something beautiful.
William Grant Still doesn't have monuments in Washington, DC. He doesn't have schools and roads named after him. He doesn't even have a headstone. He isn't in the history books and he's barely in the music history books. But William Grant Still is one of the most significant icons in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, in music history, and American history. He's too important to not know about, so thank you for reading.
Please go out and learn more about him and other Civil Rights icons you may not have heard of. Please also go and listen to his music. Beyond the racial ramifications of his work, the artistic merit of his work alone is enough to write about.