When the prolific African-American composer William Grant Still died at age 83 in 1978, he was little known outside specialized circles, and his music — including symphonies, ballets and operas — little performed. Determined to remedy that injustice, his daughter, Judith Anne Still, began a decades-long campaign to re-record her father’s music and bolster his legacy.
But it hasn’t been easy. Not long ago, in fact, she almost gave up.
“We’ve had so much trouble,” said Still, speaking from her home near Flagstaff, Ariz. “So one night, I told God I was done. I didn’t want to do this anymore. I’m not good at being persecuted.”
Then she fell asleep and had a prophetic dream in which her ancestors were dancing and partying in an enormous ballroom. When Judith glanced up, she was toe to toe with her paternal grandfather, who encouraged her to stick around for “the big finish.” As everyone in the room began giggling and laughing, she awoke “like a shot,” inspired to continue her crusade. Particularly over the past few years, she says, her work has found resonance, due in part to America’s fractious social and political climate in which racism and bigotry are frequent topics of national discussion.
This month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy in a program Jan. 10-12 that includes works by Elgar, Copland and others. A pre-concert event at 5 p.m. Jan. 12 in Grainger Ballroom, led by Sheila Jones, the CSO’s director of community stewardship and founder of the CSO’s African American Network, and Stan West, a Columbia College Chicago professor, will feature a multimedia presentation about the composer’s life and music.
During Still’s life, it was never a given that his music would be performed, so the man she remembers as a “soft-spoken and gentle” father who sang nonsense songs at home and read to his kids at night was always “grateful and excited” when that happened, she said. Hearing his work interpreted by one of the world’s great orchestras would surely have been a thrill.
Still, the first African American composer to lead a professional symphony orchestra in the United States, is best known for his African American Symphony (1930) and his 1949 operatic collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes titled Troubled Island, set in late-18th century Haiti. But largely because he chose to work in the largely white world of classical music as opposed to the black-dominated jazz realm of Ellington and Armstrong, he received minimal recognition while struggling to make ends meet and raise a family. “I don’t know how we survived financially,” Judith said. “It was just by the grace of God.”
Even within the black community, Still’s conservative political views made him something of an outsider. As American Symphony Orchestra music director Leon Botstein wrote in 2009, “Still did not behave in a way that those who discriminated against him wished him to act; neither did he conform to the wishes of those who looked to him to join in a common cause.”
As part of her efforts to promote and preserve her father’s legacy, Judith has written a movie script based on his life and the racially motivated efforts to crush his opera Troubled Island. “If my father had been just a hack, they wouldn’t have bothered,” she said. “But he was top of the line, and nobody in American music who was not a person of color wanted a black man to have the best American opera. So they did it in.”
Though she thinks there’s a long way to go, in terms of preserving his legacy, things are looking decidedly up these days. Thanks to his daughter’s considerable efforts, Still is finally having his proverbial moment in the sun. And its rays, she hints, will grow only brighter.
“This,” Judith declares, “is a pivotal year.”
Mike Thomas is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.
TOP: William Grant Still, known as “The Dean of African-American music,” led a life full of firsts. | Photo: Eastman School Archive