Harry Smyles (1917-2002)
Bio by William Wielgus
Harry Smyles was the most prominent African-American oboist of the last century, a masterful player with a colorful and distinguished career not only as a musician but as an advocate for greater gender and racial diversity in orchestras. His legacy deserves to be remembered and honored.
Harry Milton Smyles was born in Kansas City, MO on Dec. 4, 1917. Music was part of the Smyles household, both parents were celebrated church singers. The family soon moved to Ohio where he played in the band and orchestra at Addison Junior High School and East High School and studied for eight years at the Cleveland Music School Settlement.
Smyles’ teacher was Philip Kirchner, principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra and a student of Marcel Tabuteau. He attended Western Reserve University on a Ranney Music Scholarship, playing in the school’s band and orchestra, graduating in 1942 with a Bachelor of Science degree.
After graduation he worked as a book clerk at the Cleveland Public Library while performing as principal oboist of the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra, a semi-professional group, one of whose founding members was the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant principal oboe, Robert Zupnick. He also performed with the Cleveland Civic Opera Orchestra.
During World War II, Smyles was an Army Transportation Corps master sergeant in
France, Belgium and Germany. He edited a regimental newspaper but also put in charge or founding and directing the orchestra of the Provisional Truck Regiment of the Infantry School at Fort Benning. He was awarded two battle stars on the ETO (Eastern Theater Offensive) ribbon, and achieved the rank of Master Sergeant.
After the war, he worked temporarily at a factory while still performing with the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1947, he attended the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. The next year he received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that allowed him to return to Tanglewood and later study in New York City.
While at Tanglewood Smyles worked under Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony, and his assistants Leonard Bernstein and Eleazor de Carvallo. He performed chamber music with bassoonists Bernard Garfield and Loren Glickman, clarinetist George Silfies, and pianist Lilian Kallir. Tanglewood has always had a policy of promoting a diverse student body and in the two summers he attended other black students who went on to prominent careers included the cellist Kermit Moore, soprano Adele Addison, timpanist Elayne Jones, and another oboist, Ernest Washington Simms.
Impressed with the young oboist and concerned with problems of racial discrimination Koussevitsky wrote him a letter of introduction stating that Smyles was “perfectly qualified to take a position in any orchestral organization in America.” Unfortunately, the letter got Smyles nowhere, not even with Koussevitzky’s nephew, Fabian Sevitzky, the music director of the Indianapolis Symphony.
In 1948 Smyles continued his studies with Harold Gomberg while he played principal oboe for two years with the National Training Orchestra. While in New York he stayed in the apartment of a family friend, the renowned composer and band leader Noble Sissle.
Eventually Smyles found work as a member of the Broadway pit orchestras playing in innumerable shows such as Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," Bob Merrill and George Abbott's "New Girl in Town", Marshall Barer and Mary Rodger’s “Once Upon a Mattress”, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s ”Fiorello” and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar."
In 1953 Smyles wrote a long letter to Dimitri Mitropoulos, music director of the New York Philharmonic about the troubles he was having getting a job with a symphony orchestra. The conductor invited Smyles to his home for a private audition, accompanying Smyles on the piano. When it was over Mitropoulos said, “You know, I have just come back from Europe and I didn’t hear as clear a sound as yours in many of the orchestras.” He then told Smyles that auditions would be held for a vacant position and said “I guarantee you that if you play as well as any of the people who try out for the job-you don’t have to play better-you will get the job.” However, the audition was never held, the position was filled by recommendation.
However, in 1957 Mitropoulos was the conductor when Smyles appeared as soloist in the Handel g minor Oboe Concerto as part of a special concert organized by the American Federation of Musicians Union Local 802 for its second annual “Salute to Negro History Week.”
Renowned Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks prepared a major story on Smyles and spent days taking pictures of him at rehearsal and with his family. Before it was published, however, Smyles' efforts for social change in the McCarthy era drew the attention of Congress, and he was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation for alleged Communist infiltration of the Metropolitan Music School.
A much smaller version of the article eventually appeared in the Life Magazine March, 1957 issue. Park's photographs were featured in a section of an article titled "The Negro and the North: Segregation is illegal, yet he encounters a great deal of discrimination." Smyles and Parks remained close friends.
Also, on March 11 Smyles appeared on the NBC Today program, hosted by Dave Garroway (now known as the Today Show) to bring attention to the lack of opportunity for black classical musicians.
Smyles’ testimony before the HUAC on April 9, 1957 may be viewed online and it is inspiring to read his poised and eloquent responses to what appears as aggressive and pointed questioning. During this nationwide mass hysteria led by Joseph McCarthy over a supposed “Red Scare” many of those suspected as Communist sympathizers lost their jobs, their reputations ruined.
https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=kXstAAAAMAAJ&pg=GBS.PA610&hl=en (pp. 80-89)
Among other notable organizations he performed with were the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Symphony of the Air, the Bolshoi Ballet Orchestra, and a special program of Bach arias with Václav Nelhybel conducting.
Harry Smyles was one of the organizing members of the Symphony of the New World when it was established in 1965 as the only fully integrated orchestra in the United States in addition to serving as its personnel manager and principal oboist. During the 11 years of its existence, up to half of the players in the 90-piece orchestra were black.
As he explained in a 1996 PBS documentary “Classically Black”: “We’ve been told that we don’t have enough experience…to get jobs in a symphony orchestra, … and yet you have to get the job before you can get experience…it’s a very frustrating thing and it’s always been something that has stymied the best of us.”
The orchestra was a critical gateway for instrumentalists, providing training and experience that qualified them for acceptance into major symphony orchestras. A number of leading jazz musicians also broadened their range by playing with the symphony.
In 1963 Smyles appeared as a witness in hearings of the Human Rights Commission, testifying as an expect musician and as personnel manager of the Symphony of the New World to the difficulties he and other black musicians experienced in obtaining symphony work, specifically with the New York Philharmonic. In his capacity as a personnel manager he was able to provide recommendations for suitable minority applicants for inquiring orchestras in Boston, Atlanta, and Cincinnati.
As part of the organization’s activities, he performed chamber music programs with the New World Trio along with fellow black colleagues flutist Harold Jones and pianist Alan Booth. Their fine recording of the Howard Swanson’s Trio (1976) may now be listened to online (hopefully the score for this important work will someday be found).
In addition to his advocacy of Swanson’s music, Smyles also participated in performances of solo and chamber music of other contemporary black composers: Joseph Chambers, the late Dorothy Rudd Moore, Alvin Singleton, Ulysses Kay, and William Grant Still. In a 1970 review the New York Amsterdam News noted “Mr. Smyles projected the basic emotional qualities of Still’s “Incantation and Dance” with a refined virtuosity.”
Harry Smyles’ other recordings include Baroque concertos with the New York Sinfonietta conducted by his good friend, Max Goberman. In the Concerto P. 286 for multiple instruments he plays second oboe alongside Leonard Arner, in the Concerto T.43 also for multiple instruments he plays second with Albert Goltzer on first. He is also featured in the unusual double concerto RV 543 for oboe and violin where the two soloists play together throughout in unison. In Goberman’s recording of the Bach First Brandenburg Concerto the oboe section was Leonard Arner, Harry Smyles, and Albert Laubin. He may be heard on the original cast recording of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and on many recordings with Harry Belafonte.
In addition to his work as personnel manager for the Symphony of the New World, Smyles was a frequent performer with jazz and popular entertainers such as Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. He fondly remembered a 5-city tour with Stevie Wonder. He continued to teach oboe and recorder for the New York City school system until his retirement in 1987. Harry Smyles passed on January 15, 2002 survived by his wife of 51 years, Lillian Fortson-Smyles, and their two children, Beverly and John M. III.