Reference Entry

Smith, N. Clark (1877 - 1933), Composer / Arranger

Marian M. Ohman

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Smith, N. Clark (1877 - 1933), Composer / Arranger

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music educator, conductor, performer, and composer. Accounts of Smith's early life frequently contain unconfirmed or erroneous information. Leavenworth, Kansas, was his probable birthplace, and its 1870 census identified a three-year-old Clark Smith. The “N” does not stand for Nathaniel, as it is frequently cited, but for Noah (1880 census and Leavenworth Herald, 28 Aug. 1897). His parents were Kentucky-born Daniel Smith, and Missouri-born Margaret (Maggie) Davenport Smith. City directories identify Daniel's occupation as blacksmith and laborer. Smith indicated that his father had served in the military, but the National Archives could not verify this assertion. Educated in Leavenworth, Smith initially pursued a career in journalism. The 1880 census identified the fourteen-year-old as a “printer,” and in 1888 he co-founded the Leavenworth Advocate newspaper. He also demonstrated his musical talent and capable leadership in community activities, and established a connection with the Hoffman Music Company, reportedly the largest music house west of Chicago.Smith sold his interest in the Advocate Publishing Company in 1889 and married fourteen-year-old Laura Alice Lawson. (Leavenworth Advocate, 3 Aug. 1889). At this juncture, he shifted his vocation to music and became a church choir director in Columbia, Missouri, where his only child, Anna Lauretta, was born in 1893. By 1894 the family had settled in Wichita, Kansas, a larger community with greater opportunity. There he immediately became involved in a variety of musical activities. One of his earliest published compositions, the 1895 “Frederick Douglass Funeral March,” honored the man he had met at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition who significantly influenced his career. Frederick Douglass inspired him to explore the roots of his African musical heritage and its subsequent impact upon American music. The quest became a passionate dedication.In 1885 Smith became musical director for Western University, a misnamed, small, struggling secondary school in Kansas City, Kansas. He also worked as an arranger and principal copyist for the Hoffman Music Company in its Kansas City, Missouri, branch. Hoffman published his “Pickaninny Band March,” written for a youth band he organized, which John Philip Sousa reportedly called “the best kid band in the world” (Leavenworth Herald, 2 Nov. 1885). Smith's group received widespread accolades and played the Redpath Chautauqua circuit in 1898 (Kansas City (Kansas) American Citizen, 3 Mar. 1898). The following year the M. B. Curtis All Star Afro-American Minstrels engaged Smith's group to participate in a tour of Australia and New Zealand that featured Ernest Hogan, Billy McClain, Anna Madah Hyers (the “Bronze Patti”), and magician Carle Dante (Henry Sampson, The Ghost Walks (1988), 179).Smith then moved to Chicago and worked for the Lyon & Healy music firm. Company administrators recognized his potential, contributed generously to his continuing education, and made contacts on his behalf to Chicago Musical College, from which he received unconfirmed undergraduate and graduate degrees (1925?). Although it proved to be short-lived, Smith and J. Bernie Barbour established what some contend to be the first black-owned music publishing house (Indianapolis Freeman, 2 Jan 1904). About this time Smith published The Elements of Music, a primer of traditional European theory with instructions explaining the rudiments of music and the art of singing by note. His expertise was recognized when he actively participated in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's 1906 Chicago concert (Chicago Tribune, 2 Dec 1906).Smith enlisted for three years as bandmaster for the Eighth Infantry, Illinois National Guard, in 1904. When his service ended, Booker T. Washington recruited him as bandmaster at Tuskegee Institute, where he received the rank of “captain.”He resigned in 1913, prompted by the arduous nature of the band tours and Washington's criticism of his music selections. But the experience at Tuskegee clarified Smith's career path; for the rest of his life he would teach music in public high schools that received federal assistance for military training programs. Once again he taught at Western University where he rose to the rank of “major.” In 1916 he accepted a teaching position at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, and in 1925 became bandmaster at Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School. Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, engaged Smith to create a marching band for his newsboys. Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, became his final teaching position 1931–1935.A significant aspect of Smith's legacy may be a consequence of his authoritative, distinguished bearing, coupled with his extraordinary teaching talent. He exercised stern classroom discipline, placed rigid demands upon his students, and strongly emphasized, in his own words, “conceptive and creative conceptive ability,” which, he maintained should be the principal aim of the student (Kansas City Call, 1 Apr. 1922). Smith's educational philosophy, fused with the emerging generation's attraction to jazz provided his students with essential skills, and more than forty of them became professional musicians. As featured speaker, he commented on the origins of jazz at a 1922 Chicago memorial service for James Reese Europe and challenged those who condemned the genre (Chicago Defender, 27 May 1922). Smith's personal commitment, however, operated within mainstream tradition.In 1922, Smith accepted an offer from the Pullman Company, manufacturer of sleeping railroad cars, to organize Pullman porters into singing and instrumental groups. His responsibility extended to several northeastern sites, and while in New York he was invited to speak on African folk songs and melodies. Throughout his career Smith shared his knowledge and interest in African music through lectures, articles, public performances, and weekly broadcasts from St. Louis radio station KMOX, carried by the Columbia Broadcasting System (St. Louis Argus, 15 Feb. 1931). His dedication to amalgamating African and American traditions in contemporary compositions and performances brought him into working relationships with African emigrantsin Chicago and St. Louis.Throughout his career Smith worked with nationally recognized professional musicians. For Chicago's 1934 Century of Progress exposition, twenty-one contemporary composers collaborated to produce the featured attraction, “O, Sing a New Song,” a musical drama depicting the history of the African American. This extraordinary production brought together the illustrious talents of Noble Sissle, Onah B. Spencer, Will H. Vodery; Henry Thacker Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, W. C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, William Grant Still and Harry Lawrence Freeman. Critics regarded Smith and Freeman as representatives of scholarly musical endeavors and authorities on traditional African music (Chicago Daily News, 23 Aug. 1934). Prince Modupe Paris from Sierra Leone, director of the African exhibit, praised Smith for his exceptional knowledge of African Music (St. Louis Argus, 30 Sept. 1932).Smith retired in 1935 and returned to Kansas City, his permanent residence, intent upon publishing his recent compositions. While conducting an orchestra at the local musician's headquarters he suffered a stroke and died shortly thereafter. His obituary appeared in many newspapers, including the New York Times (9 October 1935) and the Chicago Defender (12 October 1935). Smith was named one of fifty prominent Chicago citizens in 1929, and the WPA included him on its list of “Distinguished Negroes of St. Louis” in the 1930s.Throughout his life Smith provided programs and entertainment for various civic and religious activities, and wherever he lived newspaper reports praised his work and applauded the performances of his choirs, ensembles, orchestras, and bands that frequently played his original compositions and arrangements. More than one hundred copies of Smith's published music have been identified. Three compositions received Wanamaker prizes: Negro Folk Suite; the Prelude from his five-part Negro Choral Symphony; and his arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Smith pioneered in creating music that glorified his exalted concept of the African American tradition.

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