alaine locke

I'm just going to drop this right here and walk away.
Great American Composers : William Grant Still

William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an American composer, who composed more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas.

Often referred to as “the Dean” of African-American composers, Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known most for his first symphony, which was until the 1950s the most widely performed symphony composed by an American. 

Born in Mississippi, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and was a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and later Edgard Varèse.

Of note, Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his 1st Symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.

Due to his close association and collaboration with prominent Afro-American literary and cultural figures such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, William Grant Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement. 

In 1918, Still joined the United States Navy to serve in World War I. Between 1919 and 1921, he worked as an arranger for W. C. Handy’s band. In 1921 he recorded with Fletcher Henderson’s Dance Orchestra, and later played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s musical, Shuffle Along. Later in the 1920s, Still served as the arranger of Yamekraw, a “Negro Rhapsody” composed by the noted Harlem stride pianist, James P. Johnson. His initial hiring by Paul Whiteman took place in early November 1929.

In the 1930s, Still worked as an arranger of popular music, writing for Willard Robison’s Deep River Hour and Paul Whiteman’s Old Gold Show, both popular NBC Radio broadcasts. In 1936, Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra ; he was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra.

In 1934, Still received his first Guggenheim Fellowship; he started work on the first of his eight operas, Blue Steel. In 1949 his opera Troubled Island, originally completed in 1939, about Jean Jacques Dessalines and Haiti, was performed by the New York City Opera. It was the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major company.

Still moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s, where he arranged music for films. These included Pennies from Heaven (the 1936 film starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans) and Lost Horizon (the 1937 film starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Sam Jaffe). For Lost Horizon, he arranged the music of Dimitri Tiomkin. Still was also hired to arrange the music for the 1943 film Stormy Weather, but left the assignment after a few weeks due to artistic disagreements.

In 1955, he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra; he was the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still’s works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.

He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national United States television when A Bayou Legend, completed in 1941, premiered on PBS in June 1981. Additionally, he was the recording manager of the Black Swan Phonograph Company.

( Source : Wikipedia )

The New Negro : Voices of the Harlem Renaissance

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 by Alain Locke 

From the man known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance comes a powerful, provocative, and affecting anthology of writers who shaped the Harlem Renaissance movement and who help us to consider the evolution of the African American in society.

With stunning works by seminal black voices such as Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and W.E.B. DuBois, Locke has constructed a vivid look at the new negro, the changing African American finding his place in the ever shifting sociocultural landscape that was 1920s America. With poetry, prose, and nonfiction essays, this collection is widely praised for its literary strength as well as its historical coverage of a monumental and fascinating time in the history of America.

[book link

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Bronzeville at Night

Archibald J. Motley Jr.


Oil on canvas

Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby

My eye was immediately drawn to this painting because of its bold colors and lively feel. Archibald Motley’s painting depicts a South Side Chicago street at night during the 1940s. The blended colors alongside the vibrant lights and red coloring bring to life a scene of African American citizens dancing and walking about the city at night. This painting displayed the increasing number of African American citizens heading to urban centers, resulting in a growing black entertainment district.

During our discussion we talked about Philip Kennicott’s review on the exhibition as a whole. Kennicott points out the tame nature of each of the pieces in Cosby’s collection, none ever showing the true colors of violence, racism or struggle. In his review, “Conversations: Museum’s African art outshines Cosby’s African American art”, Kennicott points out one painting which, “is one of the few pieces from their collection that stakes out a strong political view of the world”. I was a bit troubled by Kennicott’s point because it seemed to limit the representation of African American culture to just representations of political strife. While I agree it is important to depict race and racism, the lack of such depictions should not devalue the importance of the rest of the collection. 

For example, Motley’s painting depicts the culture and importance of music to the African American community during the forties. The painting shows the varying types of African American identities in one dynamic picture. The picture is placed in a room called “Music and Urban Culture” with musical instruments from African communities, as well as other paintings depicting music from African American culture. While the pieces were all quite different, they each held their own degree of importance. Despite Kennicott’s claim of the African Art outshining the Cosby collection, I think this room is an example of why it does not. The paintings in the Cosby collection appeared to be depicting images in order to evoke the particular feelings about music to African American communities. This contrasts the African Art which displays its importance through the intricate design of its musical instruments. As Alain Locke explains in “Excerpts from “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” about African cultures, “the plastic and craft arts predominate” (1). It is clear that for African American artists, the attempt to portray emotion in their paintings was the predominant feature. This should not mean, as Kennicott believes, the African Art outshines the Cosby pieces.

Overall, I really enjoyed this painting. I believe it beautifully depicted the thriving music scene and the diverse nature of the African American community. Despite Kennicott’s claim of no overt portrayals of racism and oppression in the collection, I believe rooms much like the one this painting is in, are incredibly important. The African American identity and community holds much more history than just these particular issues (race/racism). It is important to depict these issues, yet it is also important not to restrict or belittle the representation of other aspects of a wide-ranging culture and community.

- Jackie Goodley-Espinosa