Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Claude Thornhill!

August 10

Composer/bandleader Claude Thornhill is born in 1909 in Terre Haute, IN. Thornhill’s name becomes less visible in the ledger books of jazz history with each passing year. However, the influence and importance of his postwar big band grows in retrospect. Thornhill’s means (a blend of jazz, 20th-century classical and pop with unusual instrumentation such as the use of tubas and French horns) and ends (a sound that was soft, elegant and richly textured — call it the Claude Debussy Big Band) were completely at odds with the prevailing Swing Era template.  Beyond its innovations, Thornhill was the first to give prominence to the arrangements of a young Gil Evans, and some of Thornhill’s sidemen, such as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and tuba player Bill Barber, helped form the nucleus of Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” band (and, by extension, an entire style of ensemble jazz known as “West Coast” or “cool”).  Thornhill had a conservatory education and began his career playing piano in regional bands based in the Midwest. Yet his talents were soon recognized; he worked for Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman in 1934, and wrote arrangements for British composer Ray Noble’s American band of 1935 to 1936. He appeared on several classic Billie Holiday records of the late 1930s, and his arrangement of the folk tune “Loch Lomond” was a pop hit for singer Maxine Sullivan. Before he formed his own orchestra in 1940, Thornhill also wrote for the bands of Hal Kemp and Bing Crosby. According to writer Scott Yanow on, “The band, featuring long tones played by horns that de-emphasized vibrato, had an unusual sound that sometimes accompanied the leader’s tinkling piano. The instrumentation included two French horns and a tuba; sometimes all six of the reeds played clarinets in unison. Although classified by some as a sweet rather than swing band (since the group played a lot of ballads), with the addition in 1941 of Gil Evans as one of the arrangers, the recordings of Thornhill‘s orchestra attracted a lot of attention in the jazz world.” A stint in the military from 1942 to 1945 interrupted his career, but after WWII, Thornhill assembled a new orchestra, retaining the services of Evans (and sometimes using baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s charts as well) and featuring Konitz, clarinetist Danny Polo and trumpeter Red Rodney. Evans won acclaim–at least from musicians–for several of his arrangements, such as Miles Davis’s tune, “Donna Lee.” These were some of the first attempts to orchestrate bebop for a big band, and they exerted a deep influence on the Miles Davis Nonet of 1948 (the “Birth of the Cool” band). However, by then Thornhill’s best days were already behind him, although he continued leading bands on a part-time basis up until his death in 1965. To get a good idea of the Thornhill band’s sound, listen to “Snowfall,” Thornhill’s composition and theme song, played by his band in 1941: