William Grant Still celebration to make UM ‘proud of our own’

When the University of Mississippi debuts its Black History Month concert Tuesday evening, it’ll be more than just a celebration of the composer.

Dr. George Worlasi Kwasi Dor, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Mississippi, crowns the concert as a way to celebrate William Grant Still and as a way for Mississippi to “be proud of its own.”

“Proud of its own” meaning both the performers on Tuesday evening and the man they’re gathering to honor, Still, who is also known as the “Dean of African American Classical Composers,” hails from Mississippi, which is why this year’s concert carries some extra meaning.

“We are not talking about only Mississippi, [but] the whole United States of America,” Dor said. “One of the greatest composers of classical music comes from Mississippi.”

The concert is part of UM’s annual Black History Month celebration, and the music department has been offering concerts as part of the celebration since 2005.

Tuesday’s performances will focus on Still’s instrumental music and will feature The UM Symphonic Band, Fraternity String Quartet, UM Steel Orchestra, Ole Miss African Drum and Dance Ensemble, and faculty and student soloists also will perform. There will also be a guest performance from pianist Artina McCain, a professor at the University of Memphis.

There will also be a part performance and part lecture on Still’s piano repertoire and its relationship to the work of other 20th century African-American composers as part of the Black History Month Celebration. That will take place at 1 p.m. on Tuesday in the Nutt Auditorium.

Still is a Woodville, Mississippi, native and is known for his work that is situated in the American South, with musical reference to the ecology, experience and culture of African-Americans.

A majority of Stills’ compositions came during the 1930s and 1940s, and themes from the jazz and blues music from that era influenced his classical compositions.

Dor said these themes are what Still grew up with, which is why he included them in his compositions.

“It’s just like language,” Dor said. “It’s part of your language, that is what he understands and these are what we call pre-compositional resources.”

However, through his music, Dor says there’s a connection to not just African Americans, but also that Still’s music thinks about the larger global black community.

“He’s an African American and yet he’s thinking about blacks in Africa, the homeland,” Dor said. “He’s thinking about blacks in the Caribbean.”

There will also be pieces played by African American composers who are also native Mississippians as a way to connect the influence Still had over the years.

“We can see the link or the influence of The Dean on the younger composers,” Dor said.

Dor said he wants the concert to be an educational event that will help lead him to his biggest goal of honoring the best Mississippi native composers.

“My ultimate goal is that one day we must begin canonizing our own composers in the classroom,” Dor said.

Most importantly, however, Dor wants the UM community to be proud of its own musicians, which are staging some of the best works from one of Mississippi’s most renowned composers.

“If you are celebrating something, of course you go and bring in another person to come and perform,” Dor said. “But, it’s not as effective as whatever you can do yourself.”