A FEW MONTHS back, journalist Celeste Headlee joined interviewer Kaye Lundgren to discuss Celeste’s grandfather. In the opening minutes of their conversation, recorded at the Bobby Roberts Library in Little Rock, Celeste says she hadn’t known the family patriarch was famous until after his death. For her, Dr. William Grant Still was a gardener, a wonderful cook and doting grandfather who loved dogs and watching Bonanza with his grandchildren in his La-Z-Boy. However, as we know today—and as Kaye notes in her introduction—Dr. Still was quite well-known, and for good reason: “[He was] the first African American to conduct a major symphony, the first to have his symphony performed by a major orchestra and the first to have his opera produced by a major company. He is called the dean of African American composers.”
This month, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Dr. Still’s birth, the Central Arkansas Library System will host a screening of A Voice High-Sounding: The Life & Career of William Grant Still and a selection of his music performed by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Quapaw Quartet, followed by a panel discussion. Not familiar with the iconic composer? Read these snippets from Celeste’s reminiscences (courtesy of the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture), or listen to whole thing here.
Celeste Headlee: “It’s really clear that [music] called to him before an age that he was really aware of even his own proclivities. When he was a very small child, he used to make violins that actually played. He would spend days getting scrap pieces and making little violins. He was a terrible performer. He told the story about a woman I guess he grew up with on the same street here in Little Rock. And she said, Oh, when Billy played the violin, it almost made you cry. And he looked at us and said, That wasn’t a compliment. (laughs)
“So, performance: Even though he did learn to play a lot of instruments, it was never really the performance that called to him. It was always the creation of melody. And even growing up, when his stepfather would play recordings … they got one of the Victrolas, and they would listen to Red Seal records, and he would sit with his stepfather and listen for hours at a time, which, for a small child, is impressive. And I don’t know what it was that was calling to him, except later in life, he would say that he thought music was the language that transcended spoken language. Obviously, as a black man growing up not long after the Civil War, racism was always part of his life. And I think he saw music as a visceral and emotional experience that could transcend issues of race and hatred. And that may be, in the end, what kept him in it.”
CH: “I will say that I grew up with a capital-G genius. And in a way, that really relieves the pressure, especially being the only [family member] in music. It’s like, I’m never going to be a legend with multiple honorary doctorates and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And in a way, I just get to be who I am. I don’t have to make the name for the family. I can do what I like. I mean, I see it as completely positive having it there, having him behind me. I know there are other people, I guess—I’ve read interviews with other people [with] famous relatives, and they see it as oppressive. And I absolutely go the other way because his influence on me is that I’m so proud of him. His music is so beautiful to me that it’s a joy to talk about him. And I think also, people see my complexion, and they don’t realize that I’m black. I think one of the things that my grandfather taught me more than everything else is just to not let people define you. He refused the stereotypical line that classical music is not a part of the African American history or diaspora or culture. And he showed from a very young age that just because everyone is saying something doesn’t make it true.”
CH: “He had a really tough life. It’s really hard to be the first. And he was so persistent. Oh, and he was so successful with popular music. He absolutely could have made a lot of money if he had stayed with the popular music. And he didn’t. You know, when we look back to people who were the first—and he had a long list of firsts—it’s borderline ridiculous. And it was tough. And I think the thing I most want people to remember is just that the music is really good.
“On Performance Today … they have their standard record library, which is basically just, These are the things that everyone should hear. And they added a few pieces of my grandfather’s at one point, and they started talking about the music, and I started weeping because they were well into the segment and hadn’t mentioned yet that he was black. And I was like, Oh my God. Thank God. They’re just talking about the music. He would get so irritated when people were constantly referring to him as a black composer, an African American composer. ’Cause he said, You know, they don’t call Copland a Jewish American composer every time he’s introduced. I’m just a composer. I’m an American composer or I’m a composer, and that’s it. Either the music is good enough to stand on its own, or it’s not. I mean, in terms of his legacy, I think he left his own legacy, and it’s that the music is really good.”
Arkansas Sounds presents: A Celebration of William Grant Still
Where: Ron Robinson Theater
When: Feb. 21, 7-9 p.m.
Details: Free; doors open at 6 p.m.