Music of the week: What I’m listening to, this July 4th

William Grant Still’s Symphony number 1, the “Afro-American” symphony.

Astonishing music — maybe the best American symphony ever composed.

William Grant Still was born in 1895 in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas. He became the first African-American composer to have a symphony — this one — performed by an American orchestra, in 1931.

His Symphony number 1 is classical music but heavily influenced by jazz and blues — kind of like a more sensuous George Gershwin. As a Duke University retrospective on Still describes: “The principal theme of [the first] movement is an original 12-bar blues, first stated in the English horn. The melody is especially relevant as a symbol of the heritage of slavery and freedom.” The symphony goes on to portray a broad panorama of American life and culture.

The performance you want is by Neeme Jarvi conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on Chandos from 1993. It’s outstanding; I’ve probably listened to it a hundred times. Still’s symphony is paired on this disk with Duke Ellington’s orchestral suite “The River”, which is also great American music.