Claude Thornhill

Photo of Claude Thornhill
  • Born

    August 10, 1909
    Terra Haute, Indiana
  • Died

    July 1, 1965 (age 55)
    Caldwell, New Jersey

Though his ca­reer as an or­ches­tra leader was rel­a­tively lim­ited, pi­anist Claude Thornhill left a huge legacy. He’s of­ten cred­ited as the prog­en­i­tor of cool jazz. His record­ings, fea­tur­ing in­no­v­a­tive arrange­ments and un­usual in­stru­men­ta­tion, in­flu­enced and im­pressed many of the post-big band greats, es­pe­cially Miles Davis. Thornhill’s or­ches­tra in­cluded arranger Gil Evans and mu­si­cian Lee Konitz, who also be­came in­stru­men­tal in Davis’ sound.

Thornhill stud­ied mu­sic at the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. His first pro­fes­sional job was with the Cleveland-based band led by Austin Wylie, where he joined clar­inetist and close friend Artie Shaw. Both left Wylie for Irving Aaronson’s Commanders in 1929 and, af­ter tour­ing the coun­try, set­tled in New York, where they worked as stu­dio mu­si­cians.

Thornhill quickly earned a good rep­u­ta­tion and be­gan to work with big name bands, in­clud­ing those of Benny Goodman, Russ Morgan, Paul Whiteman, Meyer Davis, Hal Kemp, Freddy Martin and Andre Kostelanetz. In 1934, he was asked to join Ray Noble’s new American or­ches­tra, which was be­ing or­ga­nized by his friend, Glenn Miller. After two years with Noble, he moved to the West Coast, where he served as the mu­si­cal arranger for the Skinnay Ennis Orchestra on the Bob Hope ra­dio show. During this pe­riod, Thornhill also worked with singer Maxine Sullivan, mak­ing her fa­mous with the tunes Loch Lomond” and Gone with the Wind.”

In early 1940, Thornhill formed his own or­ches­tra, which subbed for Miller’s at the Pennsylvania Hotel and for Sammy Kayes group at the Commodore be­fore tak­ing off on a dis­as­trous tour. Ballroom fires and dis­hon­est pro­mot­ers took their toll on the group’s morale. Things quickly turned around how­ever when they were booked into the Glen Island Casino dur­ing March of 1941.

Response to Thornhill’s pro­gres­sive jazz or­ches­tra was tremen­dous from se­ri­ous jazz fans. At times the group’s six clar­inets would all play in uni­son, the horns would sound long tones with al­most no vi­brato, and Thornhill’s tin­kling pi­ano would al­ter­nate be­tween beauty and hu­mor. The group would play sweet and very soft, only to ex­plode the next sec­ond into a burst of sound, much to the de­light of ra­dio en­gi­neers. Singers at that time were Bob Jenney, Betty Claire and Dick Harding.

Though it was on the verge of com­mer­cial suc­cess, af­ter the or­ches­tra’s two-month stay at the casino ended, it went on a tour from which it hardly broad­cast and vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared from the pub­lic eye, fi­nally to re-emerge on the West Coast with some line-up changes. Gil Evans joined the group, as did drum­mer Davey Tough. Terry Allen be­came the new male singer.

The group was booked into the Glen Island Casino again for the sum­mer of 1942. By then, its lineup in­cluded seven clar­inets, two french horns, a tuba and a vo­cal group, the Snowflakes (Buddy Stewart, Lillian Lane, and Martha Wayne). The band’s sec­ond time at the casino was just as suc­cess­ful as its first, but as the year pro­gressed the draft took its toll on the mu­si­cians. Thornhill him­self fi­nally re­ceived the call, and the group was dis­banded in October.

Though he could have en­tered the Coast Guard as a mu­si­cian with the rank of Chief Petty Officer, Thornhill in­stead opted for the Navy. Saying he wanted to stay away from mu­sic, he be­came an ap­pren­tice sea­man, the low­est rank. The Navy, how­ever, had mu­si­cal plans for him any­way. He spent part of his three-year hitch play­ing in Artie Shaw’s or­ches­tra and the other part or­ga­niz­ing groups on newly-oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries in the Pacific, where he worked closely with ad­mi­rals Nimitz and Hulsey.

Discharged in 1946, Thornhill re­or­ga­nized his civil­ian or­ches­tra, with all but five of the orig­i­nal mu­si­cians re­turn­ing. New vo­cal­ists were Fran Warren and Gene Williams. Though the new group was ex­cit­ing, it could­n’t sur­vive the down­turn in the band busi­ness, and it fi­nally broke up in 1948. During the 1950s, Thornhill oc­ca­sion­ally put to­gether new out­fits but by the mid­dle part of the decade had van­ished from the pub­lic eye. He set­tled in New Jersey and spent the rest of his days lead­ing small units. He was plan­ning a come­back in 1965 when he suf­fered a dou­ble heart at­tack and passed away.


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  • Everything I Love
    Claude Thornhill (Lillian Lane), Columbia (1941)
  • I Said No
    Claude Thornhill (Lillian Lane), Columbia (1941)
  • Be Careful, It's My Heart
    Claude Thornhill (Lillian Lane), Columbia (1942)
  • I'm Getting Tired So I Can Sleep
    Claude Thornhill (Terry Allen), Columbia (1942)

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  • One Night Stand: Claude Thornhill
    June 23, 1947 (AFRS) 30:47