Hale Smith, Composer, 1925–2009


The list of eminent musicians who have performed Hale Smith’s music is as impressive as it is long, and extends to opposite poles of the musical world. It would be sufficient to name such jazz luminaries as John Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Ahmad Jamal, Chico Hamilton, Betty Carter and Eric Dolphy. But then you would have left out the likes of singers Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Hilda Harris, as well as legendary concert pianist Natalie Hinderas, one of the first African Americans to have an important career in classical music, and the New York Philharmonic.

But they were all latecomers, in a matter of speaking, in spotting the musical gifts of this Cleveland-born prodigy. Duke Ellington, shown a composition by the 16-year-old Hale Smith in 1941, was sufficiently impressed to sit down with him and make suggestions as to some fine points. (A few years later, avant-garde composer Wallingford Riegger praised a song sequence young Hale had written as a student that became The Valley Wind.)

Smith, who had been playing classical piano since the age of seven, was already active as a jazz pianist and played mellophone (an instrument similar to the French horn) in the high school band. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that December, however, boded a different future for young Hale.

Upon graduation, 18 months later, he donned a U.S. Army uniform; but once again, recognition of his exceptional gifts soon had him trading his rifle for a stack of music paper. Smith spent much of the next two years arranging music for Army shows that toured camps in Florida and Georgia. After his discharge, he supported himself by playing piano in nightclubs while he filled a notebook with themes for a future suite in the jazz idiom.

In January 1946 he was admitted to the Cleveland Institute of Music where he studied composition and theory with Ward Lewis and 1962 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Marcel Dick, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1950 and 1952. His alma mater would one day award him an honorary doctorate for his achievements in the field of music. His Four Songs of 1952 won BMI's first student composition award. His arrangements of spirituals would one day be performed (on many programs) by such eminent sopranos as Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman.

Relocating in 1958 to New York City, where there were many more opportunities to exercise his craft, Smith became the model of a working artist to a younger generation of black (and white) composers. He served as arranger, mentor, teacher or consultant to such figures as Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Horace Silver, Isaac Hayes, Oliver Nelson, Jessye Norman, Ahmad Jamal, Randy Weston and Abbey Lincoln—all while teaching at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University until 1970, and until 1984 as Professor of Music at the University of Connecticut-Storrs.

The influence of jazz is often apparent in his own compositions for orchestra and chorus, which also sometimes employ serial techniques. These include Ritual and Incantations (recorded by the Detroit Symphony for Columbia and by the Chicago Sinfonietta for volume 2 of the African Heritage Symphonic Series), Innerflections for orchestra (recorded by the Slovenian Symphony Orchestra) and Contours for Orchestra (by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra).

His many and varied pieces for chamber orchestra—such as Introduction, Cadenzas and Interludes for Eight Players and A Ternion of Seasons (“Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” “Rhodora,” and “A Final Affection”), string orchestra (By Yearning and By Beautiful) and band (March and Fanfare for an Elegant Lady; Somersault: A Twelve Tone Adventure for Band) have been widely performed and published.

His prolific output includes everything from TV advertising jingles to incidental music for stage productions of Lysistrata and Lorca's Blood Wedding. His “Castle House Rag” was used in the documentary The Making of Citizen Kane. Smith has, nevertheless, always found time to lend his prodigious energies to such important undertakings as the Detroit Symphony’s annual Symposium on Black American Composers. He gladly served as an advisor to the Chicago-based Center for Black Music Research, but “bristled at the designation [Black composer],” The New York Times noted in its lengthy obituary. “He wanted his work, and that of his black peers, to appear on programs with that of Beethoven, Mozart and Copland” and to be judged simply as music.

In addition to being awarded the 1973 Cleveland Arts Prize, Hale Smith has been honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters and by the Black Music Caucus of MENC for “outstanding achievement.” He was also appointed to the New York Council on the Arts by Governor Mario Cuomo.

Fittingly, this one-time CIM student who treasured the music of such forebears as R. Nathaniel Dett (Smith orchestrated Dett’s stirring “Chariot Jubilee” for the 1998 NPR broadcast of the Martin Luther King Memorial Concert at Morehouse College) has himself become the subject of scholarly articles and dissertations. A week-long series of interviews with Smith commissioned by the Smithsonian fills some 15 cassettes.

—Dennis Dooley

For more about the composer, including a full list of his compositions and sound samples of several recordings, visit marilynharris.com/halesmith.html

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