William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography, by Judith Anne Still, Michael J. Dabrishus, and Carolyn L. Quin
William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography, by Judith Anne Still, Michael J. Dabrishus, and Carolyn L. Quin. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996. Number 61, Bio-Bibliographies in Music, Donald L. Hixon, Series Editor. ISBN 0-3132-5255-6
Fueled partly by revivals of his music, the current renaissance in scholarship on William Grant Still also represents an aspect of the new scholarship on American history and culture. The narrow interpretations of early twentieth-century modernism that became standard in the 1950s effectively excluded minorities and women, a position no longer acceptable either for our more open society or for our more eclectic aesthetic tastes. The Still bio-bibliography reviewed here is only the second devoted to an African American composer in this Greenwood series that has issued sixty-four volumes over the past dozen years.
As this volume makes clear, William Grant Still (1895-1978) did much more than compose the widely performed Afro-American Symphony, whose scherzo movement is now canonized in the latest (third) edition of the Norton Anthology of Western Music, Vol. 2 (1996). Still, who grew up in a close-knit southern family, began his career as a professional musician in 1915. Before going to New York City four years later, he freelanced in Columbus and Dayton, spent a summer playing and arranging for W.C. Handy's band in Memphis, put in several terms at Oberlin studying music, and enlisted in the Navy for a year. There followed a fifteen-year period in New York City, where he played in pit orchestras (Shuffle Along and others), worked for the first black-owned record company (Black Swan, where he recorded Ethel Waters), and established himself as an important arranger of musical revues and early radio. He worked with W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake, Paul Whiteman, Donald Voorhees and Willard Robison, among others. One of his later orchestrations for Whiteman was for a newly-successful young singer, Bing Crosby ("My Kinda Love," 1933). Later he worked sporadically as a film composer and orchestrator in Hollywood.
In addition to his commercial career, Still became a part of the new music scene of the 1920s, studying with Edgar Vare and hearing his compositions performed at International Society for Contemporary Music concerts and elsewhere. A Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1934 allowed him to leave New York for Los Angeles in pursuit of his early dream of composing opera. Eventually he composed eight of these; the second, Troubled Island (to a libretto by Langston Hughes) was produced by the New York City Opera in 1949. Through the early 1950s, his orchestral works had numerous performances by major orchestras.
Not only did Still's career cross over from commercial to concert music and back at a time when these genres were often considered mutually exclusive, it stretched over more than a half-century in time, from a 1916 blues arrangement published by Pace & Handy in Memphis to choral pieces from the early 1970s. Parts of his career are extensively documented in the Still/Arvey Archive, Department of Special Collections, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which, along with materials held by William Grant Still Music, Flagstaff, Arizona, form the principal sources for this volume. Other parts, especially Still's commercial work and all aspects of his life prior to 1934, are not covered so thoroughly in these archives, nor, so far as is known, anywhere else.
William Grant Still: A Bio-Bibliography is an important step in Still scholarship, supplementing the recently published William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music (second edition), edited by Judith Anne Still, Celeste Anne Headlee and Lisa M. Headlee-Huffman (Flagstaff: The Master-Player Library, 1995). Other recent works affirm the growing interest in Still scholarship and suggest the important place this bio-bibliography occupies. Among them, Benjamin Griffith Edwards's dissertation, "The Life of William Grant Still" (Harvard, 1987), a pathbreaking work, is the only extended biography but is already dated. Jon Michael Spencer's The William Grant Still Reader, a special issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology, (Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall, 1992), reprints some of the same essays first gathered in the original edition of Fusion (1972) and addresses some of the issues around Still for the first time; several of Spencer's more recent essays continue this work. Wayne D. Shirley's "William Grant Still's Choral Ballad And They Lynched Him on a Tree," (American Music, 12 , 425-461) traces the genesis and early performance history of a single important work in revealing detail that combines music analysis with cultural interpretation. In addition, several other major projects are under way, including a dissertation by Gayle Murchison and a collection with which this author is heavily involved.
This book is the work of three authors. Two of them lend dramatically contrasting voices to the biographical accounts that open the volume. Judith Still's eloquent personal reminiscence of her father's career includes quotations from his diaries and letters that provide rare glimpses of Still as a charming but often retiring individual with a puckish sense of humor. (Eubie Blake said of Still that he was "quite the natty man about town in those early years," and "one of the kindliest, gentlest men he ever met.") Her influence on the rest of the volume is more subtle but equally important. She provided the motivation to complete this unusually difficult but necessary project and generously placed her extensive knowledge of Still/Arvey family history at the disposal of the other writers. Carolyn L. Quin's systematic biographical narrative concentrates on Still's concert works and operas and is the closest thing to a chronology to be found in the volume. Quin draws skillfully from the scrapbooks and diaries to clarify many details of Still's career. The compilers of the various lists are not identified.
By far the bulk of the book is devoted to an alphabetical list of works and performances. One hundred and seventy-three works are listed, from W1, Africa (first performed 1930, a relatively complex entry), to W172, Wood Notes (1959) and W173, Your World (1971) (both published, no performances or reviews noted). Each entry begins with a description of the work, information on when it was composed, publication information, a list of known manuscripts with their locations, and the duration. There follows a list of "Selected Performances" and finally a "Bibliography" that lists reviews of the work and offers extracts from them. For example, the entry for the Afro-American Symphony, Still's most-performed work, extends over nearly twelve pages. It is numbered "W2." Thirty-seven performances are listed from 1931-1986, numbered "W2a"-"W2kk." The bibliography lists sixty reviews, numbered "WB2.1"-"WB2.60." The reviews document an array of attitudes over a full generation and make fascinating reading. No criteria are offered for how these or the performances were chosen for inclusion, however. The expansive and unexplained decisions about this one work will serve here to raise questions about the overall focus of the bio-bibliography. They suggest unresolved conflicts among the authors about the book's goals and over how the large amount of material here should be integrated into a single cohesive volume.
After the work-list, there is a list of writings by Still and his second wife, Verna Arvey. These are given in chronological order by date of publication, and are separated into three sub-lists: writings by Still (S1-S74), writings by Still and Arvey (SA1-SA8), and writings by Arvey (A1-A34.) The subsection listing Arvey's writings should be labeled "Writings by Arvey on Still," since her journalistic writings about dance, music and theatre in southern California, begun well before she met Still, are not included. An annotated bibliography (B1-B450) on Still is included, as is a discography (D1-D77, not annotated). Unlike the list of works, the discography is sorted by genre and is therefore easier to navigate than other sections of the volume. It includes both commercial recordings and some private recordings of Still's concert works and operas, but it is more selective than other sections of the bio-bibliography. It excludes recordings of Still's spiritual and commercial arrangements. Thus his most famous arrangement, Frenesi (for Artie Shaw), is listed only in Appendix B, "Preliminary List of Arrangements and Orchestrations." The numerous reel-to-reel tapes that were a part of Still's own collection and are now in the Still/Arvey archive at Fayetteville are not noted or given even a preliminary listing, a significant shortcoming. There are two appendices, both apparently afterthoughts. Appendix A is a list of the titles of Still's works in alphabetical order (in that respect duplicating the Works and Performances section), with alternative titles cross-referenced. In Appendix B, song titles, names of theatrical productions, radio and TV shows and film titles are intermixed willy-nilly in an unscholarly but intriguing provisional list that begins to sort out Still's little-unknown commercial career.
Consistency and balance among the book's sections are often in question. "Works and Performances" is strictly alphabetical, with no division by genre and few if any cross-references to alternative titles. The discography is divided by genre and is alphabetical within genre. Yet the lists of writings attributed to Still and/or Arvey are arranged in chronological, not alphabetical order. The composer's thematic catalog, a useful adjunct to this volume reprinted in Fusion 2, is not mentioned in the index or listed in the bibliography. There are inconsistencies among the entries and errors of detail. Two examples will suffice. A Southern Interlude and Highway 1, U.S.A. are given separate entries, though the two operas are virtually identical. Two versions of the score for the Afro-American Symphony in the Library of Congress, a third score in private hands and part of a fourth at Northwestern University are mentioned; by contrast, the Library of Congress's copy of the opera Blue Steel, which differs substantially from the version at Still Music, is not mentioned. It is disappointing that there was no room for a paragraph or two describing the contents of the extensive Still/Arvey collection at Fayetteville.
The format reflects a lack of care by the publisher. Mnemonics chosen for the various lists are used in this confusing order: "W", "S", "SA", "A", "B", and "D." "B" for "bibliography" is used twice, once for the citations of critical responses to performances in the W section, and again for the general bibliography. The typography tends to obscure the breaks between W numbers, a problem made more acute by the lack of page numbers in the index. The running list of entry codes down the right-hand side of the page is difficult to scan quickly. For example, within "W," one goes from, say, W2kk to WB2.1 without ever leaving W2 and without a header or a boldface "W" to reveal that "W2kk" and "WB2.1" are just part of "W2" (let alone that "W2" is really the Afro-American Symphony.) This format contributes to the volume's awkwardness and the user's confusion. To locate the entry for a given work, readers bewildered by the typography might choose to consult Appendix A, the short alphabetical list of titles and W numbers that should have been integrated into the index. Should readers try to go from Appendix A to the index in search of the page number for their title, they won't find the W entry at all. Instead, they will be sent to entries under S, SA, A, B, and D. Unless the reference happens to be in the biographical essays, there will be no page numbers. If the title appears only in Appendix B, it won't be indexed at all. The searcher's frustration is enhanced by the absence of any chronological listing of works and by the failure to separate Still's works by genre within the list of works and performances. As it is, nowhere in this book can one find a list of Still's operas. For the record, their titles are Blue Steel, Troubled Island, Bayou Legend, Highway 1, U.S.A. (a later version of A Southern Interlude), Costaso, Mota, Minette Fontaine, and The Pillar.
In its strengths and weaknesses, the Still bio-bibliography reflects the current state of Still scholarship. By documenting the extent of Still's work and offering excerpts from numerous critics, it suggests the rich response that Still's music draws from its audiences and affirms his unique position as an American composer. Even though it is far from a finished work, it represents a significant step in the process of developing an accurate, detailed catalog of this major composer's concert music and operas. In other words, there is more than enough here to make the book a useful contribution. Furthermore, it is likely to be the only published research aid on Still for some time to come, thus remaining essential to students of Still and of the several musical cultures in which he worked. Serious students of Still's work may wish to order a photocopy of the finding aid to the Still/Arvey collection at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In the light of Greenwood's high price for this volume (raised for the second printing) some readers may wish to consider Fusion 2 (cited fully above), available either in cloth or paperback format from William Grant Still Music in Flagstaff, Arizona, as an alternative.
Catherine Parsons Smith (1933-2009) was Professor Emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno. She graduated from Smith College in 1954 and later studied performance (flute) at Northwestern University and then received a Doctor of Musical Arts from Stanford (1969). She was a professor at the University of Nevada at Reno in the music department from 1968-2001 where she taught various classes on music history and technique. She played flute in the Reno Philharmonic and the Reno Opera for many years. She taught hundreds of students flute and performance techniques over the years. She is the biographer of Mary Carr Moore (1873-1957), the translator of Jp. P. Freillon Poncein (1700), and the author of several essays on the formation of concert life in Los Angeles.