Claude Thomas Smith, a prominent American educator, conductor, and composer, was born in Monroe City, Missouri on March 14, 1932 to Claude Melvin and Harriet Thomas Smith. The family moved twice in Smith's early years: to Kansas City shortly after his birth and to Carrollton, Missouri around the time that he entered school. Smith took dancing lessons in both locations, and began piano lessons and participated in school music and theater productions while living in Carrollton. During this time, his grandmother, a piano teacher and organist, indirectly influenced him through informal musical contact. Smith first participated in band in the eighth grade after receiving a cornet for Christmas. Harold Arehart assumed the band directorship at the Carrollton Schools in 1947, and had a significant influence on Smith who studied cornet with him and served as his assistant. Smith's conducting can be traced to this time, both at high school and with a local Boy Scout band.
In 1950, Smith entered the Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri where he played under band director K.K. Anderson and switched his primary instrument from cornet to horn. He left that institution in 1952 to join the 371st US Army Band during the Korean War. Stationed in Leavenworth, Kansas, Smith served as both hornist and librarian for the band, the latter of which prompted him to begin arranging and composing. Later that year, on October 5, 1952, he married Maureen Morrison. Smith returned to higher education in 1955 when entered the University of Kansas. There, he played horn in several ensembles, most notably in the band led by Russell Wiley who encouraged Smith's interest in composition and arranging. Representative pieces from this period include Prelude and Allegro for brass choir and The World Freedom March for band. Smith graduated in 1958 with a Bachelor of Music Education degree.
After college, Smith worked as an instrumental music educator in Nebraska and Missouri until 1976. Following the birth of his daughter Pamela Kay in August 1958, he taught band in Cozad, Nebraska, conducted a local church choir, and composed pieces such as Honor Guard and Citation. Both pieces are band works that were published by Wingert-Jones Publications, a publisher with whom Smith would maintain a relationship throughout his life. In 1963, Smith began teaching at Center High School in Kansas City, Missouri where he stayed until 1966. Particularly important from these years was the composition of Emperata Overture which was featured at the 1964 Mid-West Band and Orchestra Clinic and is one of Smith's most performed and highly regarded works. Smith moved from Kansas City to Chillicothe, Missouri in 1966 where he stayed for ten years. During this time, he resumed his activities as a church choir director, began teaching a high school theory/composition course, and developed, with the help of his assistant Bill Maupin, the pedagogical system that was later codified in his band method books. Notably, Smith's compositional output increased during these years, and he was inducted into ASCAP in 1970. Perhaps his most important composition from this time was Eternal Father Strong to Save which was commissioned in 1975 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Navy Band and premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
In 1976, Smith left public school teaching to take a faculty position at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri where he taught composition, theory and horn, and conducted the University Symphony Orchestra. The demands placed on Smith by this position were such that his composition activities dropped off significantly until he left in 1978 and moved to Raytown, Missouri. The years following 1978 were Smith's most prolific; during this time he conducted the Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church choir, but otherwise focused primarily of writing music. Smith became an educational consultant for Wingert-Jones, though he also began working for Jenson Publications as a staff writer. Noteworthy compositions from the last part of Smith's life include Flight, commissioned by the Air Force Band in 1984 and adopted as the "official march" of the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum; Variations on a Hymn by Louis Bourgeois, commissioned by the Marine Band in 1986; and Variations on a Revolutionary War Hymn, commissioned by the Army Field Band. Smith died of a heart attack on December 13, 1987 shortly after conducting a Christmas concert. He is survived by his wife and daughter who, along with his son-in-law Jim Kelly, founded Claude T. Smith Publications Inc. in 1993 which publishes over sixty of Smith's works, a method book, and several recordings.
Claude T. Smith was a prolific composer, having completed over 110 compositions for band, twelve orchestral works, and fifteen choral pieces that were described by one critic as "contemporary romantic." His pitch language is essentially analogous to Western common practice traditions, with particular emphasis on striking melodic material and bass lines that articulate functional harmonic progressions. Multiple scholars have noted, however, that toward the end of his life, Smith was using "dissonances" with increasing frequency and postulated that had he continued writing, this aspect would have become a more pervasive characteristic of his music. Smith is perhaps best known for his rhythmic practice, particularly introducing asymmetrical meters into the band idiom in 1964 with the 7/8 and oddly subdivided 9/8 measures of Emperata Overture. Some of Smith's other compositions feature continually changing meters, such as the 3/4 - 6/8 - 1/4 - 7/8 - 3/4 metrical sequence found in Acclamation. Smith is also recognized for using triplet quarter notes and hemiola techniques in many of his pieces. Taking these two facets in combination, it is apparent that through the majority of his career, Smith's use of pitch was firmly rooted in 19th-century practice, while his rhythmic syntax owed much to certain composers of the early to mid 20th-century such as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. A final notion that is frequently cited regarding Smith's music is his attention to all ensemble lines; partly stemming from his pedagogical perspective, Smith continually strove to write engaging parts for each member of the ensembles for which he composed, a facet that is particularly apparent in his percussion writing.
Smith maintained a very active career throughout his life. In addition to the aforementioned and numerous other commissions, he wrote solo works for prominent performers such as "Doc" Severson, Brian Bowman, Gary Foster, and Rich Matteson. Smith also received frequent awards including multiple ASCAP Composer's Awards, a Missouri House of Representatives recognition resolution (1976), the Hall of Fame Award from the Missouri Bandmaster's Association (1988), the National Band Association Award from the Academy of Wind and Percussion Arts (1988), and the Distinguished Service to Music Award from Kappa Kappa Psi (1989). He was sought as a clinician throughout the United States, Australia, Canada, and Europe. Claude T. Smith memorial scholarships are given at Central Methodist College, Southwest Missouri State University, and Central Missouri State University. Smith's music is still often performed, as demonstrated by studies published in the Journal of Band Research in 1987 and 2005, and both he and his work have profoundly affected musicians and music education throughout the United States and beyond.