Still’s compositions during the mid-twenties to the early thirties, including the Afro-American Symphony and his ballet Sahdji (1931), are part of what has been referred to as his “racial period.” This period consists of music written using idioms taken from Black musical traditions, especially the blues. However, much of Still’s work included influences from other musical sources as well. In his youth, Still worked with a number of classical music composers, including George Whitefield Chadwick, a well-known American composer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Edgard Varèse, a prolific French avant-garde composer. After studying with Varèse in the early 1920s, Still experimented with an ultra-modernist style and had works performed at public new music concerts; however, these works did not always garner positive feedback. In a 1925 review for Still’s piece From the Land of Dreams, Olin Downes, a music critic for the New York Times, wrote that “one had hoped for better things from Still…Is Mr. Still unaware that the cheapest melody in the revues he orchestrated has more reality and inspiration than the curious noises he has manufactured?” Another review from music critic Paul Rosenfield claimed that “Still has learned much from Edgard Varèse, his instructor, although he has not yet quite learned to speak out freely…but Mr. Still has a very sensuous approach to music.” Further, Rosenfield claims that “the use of jazz motives in the last section of his work is more genuinely musical than any to which they have been put, by Milhaud, Gershwin, or any one else.” This feedback led Still to reconsider his own compositional style and create an idiom “that would be modern but not so much so that it would fail to be recognized at once” as stemming from blues or jazz.
What these critiques seem to imply is that there were certain racialized expectations for the type of music that Still would produce as a Black composer. Of course, Still did have extensive experience in arranging music for radio and theater orchestras, and the combination of popular idioms with his classical and modernist education create a voice unique to Still that have afforded him a well-deserved reputation as an incredibly talented composer. However, these critiques also indicate a certain expectation of Still as a Black composer to include music audiences would more associate with his racial identity. Although Still’s so-called “racial period” only lasted until around 1932, his works from this period have remained some of his most popular and his most often discussed. His later works do not eschew the blues/jazz inspiration, but they do expand to include other musical idioms, including using inspiration from other culturally based musical styles, including Native American traditions.