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Blazing Trails

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The name may not be well-known among jazz enthusiasts, but William Grant Still nonetheless holds an important place in the history of African-American music.

A composer of more than 150 works, including symphonies and operas, Still had a lifelong commitment to breaking the deep-rooted color barrier in the world of classical music. A Mississippi native born in 1895, Still played strings and wrote arrangements for such musicians as W.C. Handy, Artie Shaw and Sophie Tucker. From these associations Still first saw the possibilities of wedding African-American musical themes to traditional, European-based classical music.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where he found himself in demand in Hollywood as a composer, orchestrator and musical adviser.

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But his compositions--and furthering equal rights for his people--were closest to Still’s heart.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., whom he admired, Still blazed trails in his own right: He was the first black to conduct a major symphony in the United States in 1936, the first to have an opera produced by a major American company in 1949 and the first to conduct one in the Deep South in 1955.

The 1931 premiere of one of his best-known works, “Afro-American Symphony,” marked the first time a symphonic work by a black composer was played by a major orchestra. His works were subsequently conducted by such luminaries as Leopold Stokowski, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux and Fritz Reiner. Still died in 1978.

Today, in honor of King’s birthday, the Marina Del Rey-Westchester Symphony is performing a free concert of Still’s works at Crossroads National Education and Art Center’s main theater. The program includes “Afro American Symphony,” “The Far West Suite” and excerpts from the “La Guiablesse” ballet. Soprano Lynda Anders will perform excerpts from “Rhapsody for Soprano and Orchestra,” and Karen McDonald’s New Age Dance Workshop will perform selections from the ballet. An exhibit of memorabilia from the William Grant Still Art Center in Los Angeles will also be displayed in the theater lobby.

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Concert today, 2:30 p.m., Main Theater, Crossroads National Education and Art Center, 3341 W. 43rd Place.

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