On November 24, 2009, America lost Hale Smith, one of its most important composers. His works musically intertwined the dialectic between African American identity and European traditions. In his music, an obtuse meditational enlightenment with sounds focuses on the successful as well as the tragic confrontations human beings have with each other and the universe. His work was unique and particularly personal because of Hale’s philosophy and economy of means. Rooted in contemporary expression, Hale Smith set out to resolve the paradoxes of both improvisation and notated music. Influenced by jazz, closed and open forms, graphic and proportional notation, as well as aleatoric and serial thinking, each of his compositions embraced a different ambiance and reflected a fresh manifestation of his personality.
This accomplished composer’s list of friends in music was legendary and included Beryl Rubinstein, Benny Carter, William Dawson, William Grant Still, Langston Hughes, Eric Dolphy, Dizzy Gillespie, Muhal Richard Abrams, Randy Weston, Hall F. Overton, Olly Wilson, George Walker, Melba Liston, Ulysses Kay, Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., Raoul Abdul, Alvin Singleton, Kathleen Battle, Malcolm J. Breda, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, Dominique René De Lerma, Regina Baiocchi, William Banfield, and Howard Swanson.
Hale Smith was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1925. His mother and his father, Hale Smith, Sr. (the owner of a printing shop), had a profound influence on his creative development. Educated in the public schools of Cleveland, he was drafted into the military and served from 1943 to 1945. Later, he studied composition with his principal teacher, Marcel Dick, at the Cleveland Institute of Music. This led to a B.Mus. in 1950 and a M.Mus. in 1952, and in 1998, he received an honorary doctorate. In 1959, he left for New York for positions as an editor, advisor, and copyright consultant for several publishing houses including C. F. Peters, E. B. Marks, Frank Music Corporation, and Sam Fox Music Publishing. In 1970, he became a professor at the University of Connecticut and retired from that position in 1984.
While performing as a jazz pianist and working as a jazz arranger occupied some of his attention, creating classical music became paramount. Solo pieces, duos, chamber ensembles, string orchestra works, large orchestra pieces, compositions for soloist and orchestra, band, jazz ensembles, choir and incidental music are all a part of his creative output. Compositions of particular note are his In Memoriam, Beryl Rubinstein (1953) for choir and orchestra and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1955). In 1965, Faces of Jazz and the following year, Evocation, both for piano, attracted attention. Innerflexions was written in 1977 at the request of Dr. Leon Thompson, director of Educational Projects, the New York Philharmonic. Hale Smith’s choral composition, Toussaint L’Ouverture was presented two years later, and in 1979 Thompson commissioned Solemn Music for organ and brass instruments. Three Patterson Lyrics was completed in 1985, a work for soprano and piano. And he continued to show mastery of styles, genres, and African American musical traditions in Dialogues and Commentaries (1990-91), a chamber ensemble composition written for Richard Pittman and Boston Musica Viva.
The composer Wallingford Riegger called The Valley Wind (1952-55) for soprano and piano, “an important contribution to our quite limited good song literature.” That statement was the earliest recognition of Hale Smith’s contributions, but in later years his accolades were many. In 1973, he became the first African American to receive the Cleveland Art Prize in Music, which marked a decisive turning point in his life. In 1982, the Outstanding Achievement Award came from the National Association for the Study and Performance of African American Music. The American Academy of Arts and Letters presented him with the Composer’s Recording Award in 1988. [Ed. Note: In 2001, Hale Smith was awarded the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction.]
I met my mentor and dear friend Hale Smith at the home of percussionist Fred King in 1967. It was then that I asked him, “What can a composer do to get a commission?” He said, “Don’t wait for commissions. You should always write free pieces.” This is advice that I have followed to this day. His continuous encouragement to young composers was impressive. The door at his home in Freeport, Long Island was always open to them. This was a hallmark in his teaching. As a driving force for new music, Hale became an inspirational leader. This became obvious in two events sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation: one a symposium with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, and the other with the Center for Black Music Research, Samuel Floyd, Director.
Hale Smith’s sense of humor and provocative gift of conversation were legendary. His desire to stay youthful was evident even to the point of asking his grandchildren to call him “Pete” and not “Grandpa.” But his passionate disdain for minimal and rap music was a constant in his later years. However, most important was bearing witness to his love for his wife of sixty one years, Juanita Hancock Smith, an American love story that forever framed his life. We will no longer see this articulate man, dressed in a suit or sport coat wearing a bow tie, several large Monte Blanc pens in his shirt pocket and large cigars in his coat pocket. His great capacity to love so many people and create beautiful music is one of our precious legacies.