Hale Smith was one of the first African American composers to abandon black folk music and, in the 1950s, become a mainstream modernist. As an accomplished jazz pianist and arranger, though, he insinuated elements of progressive jazz into his predominantly serial music in a fusion that always seemed entirely natural.
Smith's early exposure to music revolved around the classics, through children's concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra and study of piano scores. He wasn't seriously introduced to jazz until he was 13, but within weeks was playing jazz gigs in nightclubs. After military service, he studied piano with Dorothy Price and composition with Marcel Dick at the Cleveland Institute of Music, obtaining a master's degree in 1952. During this time, he was conductor and composer at a Cleveland community arts center called Karamu House, the source of the core cast of a 1952 production of Porgy and Bess. He became acquainted with poet Russell Atkins and fell under the spell of his Psychovisual Perspective for Musical Composition, a treatise theorizing that the transmission of thought can be represented by a composition's sonic relationships. Smith responded to Atkins' work by conceiving his music as a series of images, however abstract.
Smith began serious composition in the early to mid-'50s, a time when serialism was sweeping America, in the composer's atelier if not in the concert hall. He wholeheartedly fell in with the modernists, largely ignoring the interest of such predecessors as William Grant Still in African American folk music. Smith did, however, retain a deep interest in jazz and ragtime that influenced his rhythms (he referred to his own "delayed approach to the beat") and some of his chord structures; he was especially fond of planting sevenths and ninths in beds of quasi-atonality. Even so, he did not write "third stream" music; only in a few pieces, such as the 1965 piano suite Faces of Jazz, did jazz elements begin to outweigh his precisely notated, highly chromatic style. This is heard to best effect in his three major orchestral works of the 1960s and '70s, Contours for Orchestra, Innerflexions, and Ritual and Incantations, each recorded shortly after its premiere. He adopted a somewhat more lyrical approach in his writing for voice (notably the song cycle The Valley Wind) and solo strings.
He knew jazz inside and out, though; in 1958, he moved to New York City and began writing music for film and television and arranging for such jazzmen as Chico Hamilton, Dizzy Gillespie, Eric Dolphy, Ahmad Jamal, and Oliver Nelson. He also worked as an editor and consultant with several music publishers. Simultaneously, his classical output began to increase, peaking in the 1970s while teaching at the University of Connecticut. In 1984, he announced that he was retiring from teaching to devote full time to composing and arranging, but his concert hall composing fell off except for a spurt of music in 1990 - 1991, including Dialogues and Commentaries for Seven Players and the vocal trio Tra La La Lamia.