REX NELSON: Still’s musical world

Posted: March 10, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

"Composers are creative; makers," said Linda Holzer, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the coordinator of classical piano studies at the school. "They make music. They use melody, harmony and rhythm to create a world. It's a musical world, and it's shaped by what they know.

"I'm a classical pianist, and the music I play includes piano solo and chamber music. In September 1997, as part of events in honor of the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, I performed a chamber music recital with Arkansas native, cellist and musicologist Ernest Lamb. ... We played a piece by William Grant Still. It's called 'Summerland.' The music sounds like Arkansas. Last summer, I rode my bike along the Arkansas River. On a day in June, I looked around me and saw the beautiful, expansive flowing water of the river. I saw the lush vegetation of the landscape. I looked up at the blue sky and saw the white, fluffy clouds of summer days. And I thought, 'William Grant Still surely makes music that reminds me of Arkansas.'"

On Wednesday, I wrote about Florence Price, a black composer who was born in Little Rock in April 1887. I quoted from a New Yorker article about Price and noted that there seems to be a resurgence in interest in the work of this native Arkansan, who died in Chicago in 1953. She's not the only famous black composer to have been raised in Little Rock. Still wasn't born in Arkansas' capital city. He was born in May 1895 in Woodville, Miss., but Still's mother moved to Little Rock with her infant son after her husband died later that year.

"Still and his mother lived with his grandmother, and his mother worked as a teacher," Michael Dabrishus writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "In 1904, Still's mother married a railway postal clerk, Charles Benjamin Shepperson, whose own interest in music influenced the young Still. With Shepperson's support, he studied violin in 1908 with violinist William Price, who lived for a short time in Little Rock. Still attended M.W. Gibbs High School in Little Rock and graduated in 1911 as class valedictorian. That fall, he enrolled at Wilberforce University in Ohio, where his mother hoped he would pursue studies in medicine. His interest in music, however, led him to leave Wilberforce in early 1915 without graduating in order to play in bands and orchestras in Ohio."

During the noon hour on a recent Friday, I joined several dozen other people at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in downtown Little Rock. We were there to hear Holzer play selections of Still's music and talk about his life.

Still's mother taught high school English for 33 years. Shepperson nurtured his stepson's musical interest by taking him to operettas and buying Red Seal recordings of classical music. His maternal grandmother, Anne Fambro, would sing spirituals to him.

Still would later say of his grandmother: "I have much to thank her for. She was one of the old-fashioned devout Christians. She had been a slave, although she was one of the fortunate ones who didn't have to work in the fields. She had seen slaves being herded along the country roads of Georgia on the way to the slave mart. She knew and sang the old songs that voiced the slaves' belief that God wouldn't forget them. Because of her influence, I have been enabled to realize the value of things spiritual and to love them. ... Each day when I would come home from school, she would have something special prepared for me--pies, cookies, candy or something good that she had made."

Still said he "had to be" the high school valedictorian because "my mother made up her mind that I must be, and she made me study. She would never work out any problems that presented themselves for me but would force me to work them out for myself."

In addition to the violin lessons, Still taught himself to play the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello and viola. He was six weeks shy of graduation when he left Wilberforce. He was awarded scholarships to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and later moved to Memphis, where he was hired by W.C. Handy to compose arrangements for Handy's band. Still joined the U.S. Navy in 1918.

What was titled the "Afro-American Symphony" was completed by Still in 1930 and first performed in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra. In 1933, meanwhile, Price became the first black female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major orchestra. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her "Symphony in E Minor." It's interesting that both Price and Still were raised in Little Rock and that both were high school valedictorians.

"Still's mother died in 1927," Holzer said. "He never considered returning to live in Arkansas. There was a lot of racial tension in the state at that time following the implementation of Jim Crow laws and the Elaine race massacre of 1919. Most black servicemen found it difficult to return to the South from Europe. Additionally, we know that the end of World War I was a trying time medically. That was when the 1918 influenza epidemic struck, killing hundreds of thousands of people globally. For a composer, the East Coast and the West Coast offered more opportunities for professional growth."

Still died in Los Angeles at age 83 in December 1978.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 03/10/2018