Traveling exhibit offers enlightenment on native son

This opinion column appears in the March 15th edition of the Daily Journal. Give you opinion below.

“If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.”
– Gustav Mahler

There’s a traveling exhibit at the Lee County Library right now until Friday, March 27. It’s called “William Grant Still: Inspired to Inspiring.”
If you’re like I was a decade ago, you might be saying, “Who is William Grant Still?” As Mississippians, we all should become familiar with the man and his music.
Back in 1999, I sat at my desk at The Vicksburg Post and answered a call. The voice on the end of the line asked if I knew anything about William Grant Still.
I was embarrassed to have to admit to Judith Ann Still that I’d never heard of her father.
She was kind and told me I was certainly not alone. Then she told me about her dad. She’s sort of made it her life’s work to educate people about her father and his music.
William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Miss., in Wilkinson County.
That he was drawn to music should have come as no surprise to anyone. His father was bandmaster to an all-black band; his mother was an English teacher and musician.
When his father died, Still’s mother moved with her young son to Little Rock, Ark.
Even as a youngster, Still loved all things music – he even made toy violins. But his mother discouraged him.
“His mother told him not to bother studying music because colored musicians had no place to go in those days,” Judith Still told me in that ’99 phone call. “She thought he’d end up playing in a brothal like Scott Joplin, so she sent him to Wilberforce University (in Ohio) to become a doctor.”
Born to compose
Despite his mother’s protests, Still formed a string quartet at Wilberforce and began writing his own music, later attending Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
“His mother was able to watch my father conduct a major orchestra before her death, so I think she was able to make peace with the fact he was a composer,” Judith Still said.
In 1938, Still composed the opera “Troubled Island” about Haiti. It was staged at the City Center of Music and Drama in New York City and opened to packed houses.
“The critics thought that, as a black man, my father had gone too far, was becoming too successful,” Judith Still said. “They panned his opera.”
And opera house owners shut down production of Still’s work.
To support his family, Still went west to Los Angeles, where he cranked out compositions for such TV shows as “Perry Mason,” Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Three Stooges” and “Gunsmoke.”
Still’s story is rich, wonderful, full of courage and certainly not without conflict. To tell it all would require much more than this space.
That’s why you should make your way to the library and check out the exhibit. And at 6:30 Tuesday, there’ll be a free program on Still.
If you love music, it’s a great opportunity.
More importantly, it’s part of our history.
Learn more about it.
Contact Leslie Criss at or (662) 678-1584.

Leslie Criss/Daily Journal

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