At our recent February 21, 2021 Piano Songs & Fantasies concert premiere, Byron Schenkman & Friends was pleased to be able to present an unpublished work by Hale Smith (1925–2009) as part of the program. This is likely the first time this piece has been performed for the public.
“Breaking Bread with Egbert” was performed by the esteemed concert pianist William Chapman Nyaho, with permission from Juanita Smith and the estate of Dr. Hale Smith. Nyaho received this unpublished score through correspondence with Smith’s widow and says upon first seeing it, “I just read through it and just nearly cried.” The song is based on the African American spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and was written to mark the retirement of one of Smith’s friends and colleagues.
Dr. Hale Smith is best known as a classical composer, and performer and arranger for jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Chico Hamilton. Born as Hale Smith Jr. in Cleveland, he started studying piano at age seven after asking his parents for music lessons. His father owned a printing shop and Smith credited his early experiences with printing for his later interest in music publishing. Smith’s early music exposure was centered around the study of classical piano scores. His first serious introduction to jazz happened when he was thirteen, and soon after he was playing jazz gigs in nightclubs. Smith credited his early exposure to classical and jazz idioms for a later ease at moving between them, writing, “The two musics have lived comfortably side by side.” In 1941, Duke Ellington was shown a composition by sixteen-year-old Smith that impressed him enough to offer his advice on the manuscript.
The following year, Smith found the opportunity to meet Langston Hughes: “Hughes was one never to forget an artistically inclined child,” said Smith. “He came to my high school in Cleveland in ’42–which he’d attended briefly many years earlier–and I was in the crowd to greet him. I handed him a sheet of music that I’d written. He autographed it. Four years later, right out of the army, I was in Harlem for a visit. I ran into him at the post office on 125th Street. He saw me and said, ‘Say, aren’t you from Cleveland? Are you still writing music?’ I was astonished that he could remember a kid from four years ago! He was that kind of a man.” They became pen pals and formed a long friendship. Smith even turned a number of Hughes’ poems into songs although they never directly collaborated on any new works.
Dr. Smith was drafted into the military during WWII and spent much of his two years of service arranging music for Army shows that toured camps in Florida and Georgia. Afterward, he was accepted to the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1946 where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and eventually was awarded an honorary doctorate. After he had gone as far with his career as he believed possible in Cleveland, Smith relocated to New York in 1958 and began writing music for film and television. At the same time, he was also arranging and performing as a pianist for a bevy of prominent jazz musicians. A few years later he began working as an editor and consultant with music publishing houses. He became a professor of Music at the University of Connecticut in 1970 where he taught until his retirement in 1984.
In yet another aspect of his career, Dr. Smith served as a consultant on music copyright infringement cases. This included representing Paul Simon in a well-publicized music infringement case and serving as an expert witness in Lennon v. Levy, where both John Lennon and Chuck Berry claimed original rights to the song, Come Together.
Married in 1948, Smith and his wife Juanita were together for sixty-one years until his death. They endured several years apart after he first moved to New York; but, as he began to find more professional success, she also relocated from Cleveland with their four children. Shortly after, she took on a position at the United Nations where she spent the rest of her career. She has described Smith as a constant writer who didn’t need to sit at a piano or be near music to compose, adding, “He wrote music like you would write a story.”
Dr. Smith was an adviser for the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, but resisted being pigeonholed as a Black composer. He frequently expressed concern about the role of Black classical musicians and composers in America. In an article published in 1971 he wrote, “We must be a part of the mainstream in this country or all of the black programs are a sham. Place our music not on all-black programs. We can do that ourselves, for the benefit of our own people. Place our work on programs with Beethoven, Mozart, Schoenberg, Copland, and—if they can stand the heat—the current avant-gardists. We don’t even have to be called black. When we stand for our bows, that fact will become clear when it should—after the work has made its own impact.”