Residence of William Grant Still
1262 South Victoria Avenue – map
Alright. I’ll ‘fess up. Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of William Grant Still. It turns out the “Dean of Afro-American Composers” wrote more 150 musical works, including nine operas, five symphonies, four ballets, chamber works, and so on. He was also an arranger, conductor, and an accomplished oboe player. So I guess I'm the rube.
Actually, it’s pretty tough to summarize Still’s achievements in just this one post. For a much more detailed list of the man’s accomplishments, visit AfriClassical.com (where you can also listen to some brief audio clips) or the official home of William Grant Still Music.
Still was born in Mississippi in 1895, but moved to Little Rock with his mom a few months later after the death of his father.
Personally, I like knowing the guy worked with W.C. Handy, Sophie Tucker, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman. A WWI U.S. navy veteran, he arranged for and/or played in New York City shows including Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along and Dixie to Broadway. Still studied with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgar Varèse in the twenties and received both Guggenheim and Rosenwald Fellowships. He was a member of the Harlem Renaissance and played oboe with the Harlem Orchestra.
The first performance of a William Grant Still classical work was of From the Land of Dreams on February 8, 1925. On October 28, 1931, the Rochester Philharmonic premiered Still’s first symphony, the Afro-American Symphony.
He settled in Los Angeles in 1934. Two years later, on July 23, 1936, Still conducted the L.A. Philharmonic playing one of his works at the Hollywood Bowl. This was the first time an African-American conductor led a major symphony orchestra in concert in the U.S.
Still co-wrote the 1936 ballet Lenox Avenue with pianist Verna Arvey, whom he would go on to marry in 1939 (Verna was Still’s second marriage; he had four children with his first wife, Grace Bundy, whom he divorced). He then worked with Langston Hughes on the opera Troubled Island and with Zora Neale Hurston on Caribbean Melodies. In 1940, the New York Philharmonic performed And They Lynched Him to a Tree, a choral ballad he wrote with Katherine Garrison Chapin.
William Grant Still succumbed to the Hollywood bug, (not always with a good experience), contributing to the movies The King of Jazz (1929), Lost Horizon (1935), Pennies From Heaven (1936), and Stormy Weather (1943). He even worked for television, writing music for Gunsmoke and Perry Mason.
(Compare the big, green box of today to whenever this shot from L.A.’s Department of City Planning website was taken.)
While Still slowed down in the 1950s, he continued to compose operas, Bayou Legend, A Southern Interlude, and Costaso among them. He also stayed busy accepting sacks full of honorary degrees and awards.
After spending several years in a nursing home, William Grant Still died of a heart attack on December 3, 1978 at the age of 83.
As far as the house is concerned, I don’t think anyone would argue it’s got any architectural significance. Still lived here with Arvey, their son, Duncan Allan, and daughter, Judith Anne. Three years before he died, the Cultural Heritage Board declared his home a city monument because of the contribution made by Still to the culture of Los Angeles and the world.
Cariaga, Daniel “Composer William Grant Still Dies” The Los Angeles Times; Dec 6, 1978, p. H29
Arvey, Verna In One Lifetime The University of Arkansas Press 1984 Fayetteville
Smith, Catherine Parsons William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions University of California Press 2000 Berkeley, Los Angeles, London
Up next: Paul R. Williams Residence