Even if you’re a devotee of classical music, you might never have heard of William Grant Still.
It was different in Still’s own day. Music historians have long called Still (1895-1978) the dean of African-American classical composers, and that came out of his prominence, which began in the 1920s when he made his initial name as an arranger for leading bands in the new popular music known as jazz. He followed that with a historic coup in 1931 when the Rochester Philharmonic played his Afro-American Symphony, the first of his five symphonies and the first such work by a black American composer to be played by a leading orchestra.
In the decades that followed, Still was accepted as a leading American composer, writing chamber works, symphonies, operas and ballet scores, as well as music for radio, film and television. He earned hosts of awards, fellowships and honorary doctorates, and wrote steadily until his retirement in the 1970s in Los Angeles. But like so many American classical composers of the mid-20th century, his music has faded from the public sphere.
That’s something Rufus Jones Jr. hopes to turn around a bit this month when he hosts a program of chamber music by Still presented by the Palm Beach Symphony as the inaugural event in its new chamber music series.
Jones, who teaches at Hallandale Beach High School and conducts for the Miami Music Project, has written a biography of black conductor Dean Dixon, and in 2009, produced a new three-volume edition of Still’s Folk Suites. He says while the symphonies and operas are more high-profile, it’s the chamber works that offer the most concise representation of Still’s style and compositional mastery.
“I would say that the chamber works are probably the easiest way to get folks into this very unique style,” Jones said. “In my younger years, I would say of course the symphonies, because I was performing the symphonies, but now that I’ve become more acquainted, and have written, and taught a great deal about his chamber works, I think for those who have never heard of William Grant Still, I would introduce them to his chamber works.
“I can see that opening up doors to listening to some of his larger-scale works,” he said. “What he does in those smaller works might be the same as in the larger-scale, in terms of his overall instrumentation, the fusion of the black idiom with the European classical idiom … and really doing it like no other composer has ever done, with such sophistication, and a sense of purpose from beginning to end.”
While his contemporaries such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland are better-known today, Still’s music is every bit as distinctive, Jones said.
“Once you listen to William Grant Still and you listen to others, you will know his style, you will know his sound. He has a very unique sound … when you can hear a measure and know — that’s Beethoven, that’s Mozart, that’s Brahms — when you hear that measure, and to me it only takes a measure to really know someone’s sound … I think (Still) fits that to a T,” Jones said.
The Palm Beach Symphony program, set for Jan. 10 at the Palm Beach Day Academy on Palm Beach, will feature a string quartet comprising violinists Evija Ozolins and Valentin Mansurov, violist Chauncey Patterson and cellist Claudio Jaffé. Ozolins is in the Bergonzi String Quartet, Mansurov and Jaffé are members of the Delray String Quartet, and Patterson was a founding member of the Miami String Quartet.
Pieces will include Still’s Lyric Quartet, Danzas de Panama, Summerland, The Prince and the Mermaid and others. Jones will give a short talk about the composer at the start of the program and introduce each piece briefly.
Jones said Palm Beach Symphony’s director of operations, Olga Vasquez, approached him about putting together the program when the ensemble was organizing its first chamber series. (The second concert Feb. 7 features string quartet music from Spain; the March 21 concert is a brass quintet program of American music for the centenary of Leonard Bernstein.) He approached the task by looking at the composer’s whole career.
“I really wanted to try to find a sense of breadth to the kinds of chamber works he composed over the years,” he said. “I wanted to go back to the days when he actually started composing full-time with the ‘Lyric Quartet,’ and then move on to the chamber works of the 1960s, which is where I spent most of my time focused in editing. It was more about trying to find a balance.”
Still wrote in a warm, accessible neo-Romantic style with abundant melody and colorful harmonies, drawing on black vernacular tradition as well as European symphonists such as Dvorak. It’s the kind of music that immediately appeals to audiences, as Jones repeatedly discovers when presenting Still’s work to people that haven’t heard it before.
“Every time I give a presentation or conduct a work by Still, I get people coming up: ‘My goodness, I had no idea this composer existed. This is such beautiful music, and so well-done.’ … I get that every single time,” he said.
At the outset of his career, Still received crucial mentoring from leading older composers such as Boston’s George Chadwick, and the French modernist Edgard Varèse. In more recent years, Still has benefited from the advocacy of major conductors such as Neeme Järvi of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who in 1994 made outstanding recordings of Still’s first two symphonies for the Chandos label. Making Still better-known to a current generation of concertgoers will require that kind of championship, Jones said, as well as the money to fund future efforts.
“It’s really all about exposure, which is why I’m really excited about this opportunity, even if it is just the chamber music,” he said, because it will encourage audiences to examine more of the Still legacy. “And I think they will be pleasantly surprised, because the works are quality.”
And they will be glad they got to know him, Jones said, because Still is a major American composer who deserves to be in our regular cultural landscape.
“I really believe, with his output of symphonies, operas, chamber works, choral pieces, solo pieces — you name the genre within the classical medium and he has touched it, and given us such a wonderful representation of all those mediums, “ he said. “I think his place in the American canon should be among those (composers) that we know, should be with Copland, Gershwin, Ives and Bernstein.”
The Palm Beach Symphony Chamber Music Series’ first concert, “Playing Still: The Dean of Afro-American Composers,” is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 10, at the Palm Beach Day Academy, 241 Seaview Ave., Palm Beach. Tickets are $35. Call 561-281-0145 or visit palmbeachsymphony.org.