Claude Thornhill

Photo of Claude Thornhill

Though his career as an orchestra leader was relatively limited, pianist Claude Thornhill left a huge legacy. Often credited as the progenitor of cool jazz, his music and recordings, featuring innovative arrangements and unusual instrumentation, influenced and impressed many of the post-Swing Era jazz greats, especially Miles Davis. Thornhill arranger Gil Evans and saxophonist Lee Konitz became key parts of the Davis sound.

Thornhill studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, landing his first professional job with the Cleveland-based band led by Austin Wylie, where he joined clarinetist and close friend Artie Shaw. In 1929, both Thornhill and Shaw left Wylie for Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, and after touring the country settled in New York, where they worked as studio musicians. Thornhill quickly earned a reputation as a pianist and an arranger, working with several name bands, including those of Benny Goodman, Russ Morgan, Paul Whiteman, Meyer Davis, Hal Kemp, Freddy Martin and Andre Kostelanetz. In 1934, he joined Ray Noble’s new American orchestra, organized by his friend, Glenn Miller.

After spending two years with Noble, Thornhill moved to the West Coast, where in 1937 he played piano on Billie Holiday’s “He’s Funny That Way” and began an association with singer Maxine Sullivan, writing arrangements and conducting the orchestra on her recordings. The band also made a few recordings of its own with Jimmy Farrell and Barry McKinley on vocals. Thornhill continued to work with Sullivan into 1939. He then joined Skinnay Ennis, whose orchestra appeared on the Bob Hope radio show.

Early Orchestra

In mid-1939, Thornhill returned to New York and announced the formation of his own orchestra. Originally planning a September debut, it was early 1940 before the band finally played its first bookings, subbing for Miller at the Pennsylvania Hotel and for Sammy Kaye at the Commodore then taking off on a disastrous tour. The night before their opening engagement in Virginia Beach, the ballroom burned down. A big job in Balboa Beach, California, turned into a small one when the ballroom owner decided to only open his establishment three nights a week. In San Francisco, they were kicked out of a swank hotel because the operators didn’t like their music. In Hartford, Connecticut, their stay at what turned out to be a small fly-by-night club was cut short when the show’s promoter skipped town and the owner padlocked the doors. A local newspaper photographer captured the band members standing outside the club shivering in the snow.

The band’s luck began to change towards the end of the year when it attracted attention while playing in Boston, and then came a booking at the famous Glen Island Casino in March 1941. That engagement, which included national radio time, finally put the orchestra in the headlines. Jazz fans responded enthusiastically to Thornhill’s unique sound, designed by arranger Bill Borden, which presaged the rise of progressive jazz later in the decade. 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.

Early vocalists with the band were Jayne Dover, who changed her name to Jane Essex in mid-1940, and trombonist Bob Jenney, brother of Jack, who handled novelty tunes. Male vocalist Dick Harding had joined by September 1940. Essex had left by April 1941, replaced by Betty Claire, who was replaced by Kay Doyle in July. The band originally recorded on the Okeh label, a subsidiary of Columbia, before switching to the parent label in mid-1941.

After the orchestra’s two-month stay at the casino ended, it went on a tour from which it hardly broadcast, and it virtually disappeared from the public eye. When the band finally re-emerged on the West Coast later that year, it had gone through line-up changes. The draft had taken Borden, with Gil Evans replacing him. Lillian Lane, a new discovery by Thornhill, had replaced Doyle as female vocalist in August 1941. Bobby Day singing team Buddy Stewart and Martha Wayne had joined the band by November, working as a duo. Thornhill began using all four vocalists as a quartet, originally calling the amalgamation A Pair of Pairs, but by July they were known as The Snowflakes, named after Thornhill’s theme song, “Snowfall.” Terry Allen replaced Harding in June 1942, with Artie Malvin taking Allen’s place by early August.[1]

The band remained popular into 1942, especially with other musicians. Arrangers and musical directors from the film industry and radio packed the audience at Thornhill’s February 1942 opening in Los Angeles at the Palladium, all wanting to hear what new sounds he and Evans had prepared. 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, and a tuba. The orchestra was particularly hard hit by the draft however. By mid-1942, Thornhill was having trouble filling spots with musicians capable enough to handle the band’s advanced book. The service also took vocalist Stewart in late summer. Thornhill himself, classified 1-A in September and facing imminent induction, finally gave up and disbanded, enlisting in October, not long after Miller had done the same.

Navy Years and Post-War Bands

Though he could have entered the Coast Guard as a musician with the rank of Chief Petty Officer, Thornhill instead opted for the Navy, where he became an apprentice seaman, the lowest rank. When enlisting, he told the Navy he wanted active duty and that he didn’t want to be involved with music while in the service, but fate decided otherwise when Artie Shaw picked Thornhill for his navy orchestra, stationed at Pearl Harbor. When Shaw’s band headed to the South Pacific in mid-1943, Thornhill remained behind to form his own navy band, which performed on naval vessels in the Pacific, with concerts often broken up by air raids. In late 1944, he returned to the States to organize an all-navy show, which included a small band and other entertainment. The unit performed in forward areas of the Pacific war zone, entertaining tired fighters. Singer Dennis Day was part of the unit. The work was so intense that Thornhill ended up in the hospital suffering from fatigue in mid-1945.

While still in the service, Thornhill prepared to form a new post-war band. “I’ve got some revolutionary ideas,” he told Down Beat magazine. Discharged in 1946, he reorganized his civilian orchestra, with many of the original musicians returning, including both arrangers, Borden and Evans. Kay Allen was announced as female vocalist in April but had already departed by the time the band debuted on May 29. Betty Bennett took her place. Buddy Hughes was named male vocalist in late April, however Thornhill’s male vocalist in late September was identified in one article as Glenn Sterling, even though Buddy Hughes was present with the band on September 26 and signed a three-year contract in October.[2] Bennett left in July, replaced by Beverly Byrne, sister of the band’s pre-war vocalist Buddy Stewart. Jeanne Shirley replaced Byrne on September 24, though she didn’t remain for more than a few days, with Fran Warren, who became the band’s breakout star, settling in for the long haul as female vocalist by early October. Bob Jenney and sax player Ted Goddard sang novelty tunes.

Though the new group was exciting, it couldn’t compete with the downturn in the band business. Thornhill took a three week lay-off in February 1947, in which he retooled the band to cut costs. Not wanting to rewrite his book, he kept the same number of men but at a lower salary. Many of his musicians remained after the cut in pay, though Gene Williams replaced Hughes as male vocalist. The revamped orchestra continued to impress, with Evans writing arrangements and exploring elements of bop.

In June 1948, Thornhill disbanded for a two-month vacation, reorganizing in September. As before, many of his former musicians returned, including Evans, who was set to launch his own band but scrapped it to rejoin. Neither vocalist returned however. Williams formed his own band, while Warren, who had topped many singing polls, began a solo career. Thornhill planned to replace them with a trio or quartet. For that task, he brought back Buddy Stewart, who since his time with the band in the early 1940s had earned a reputation as a pioneering progressive jazz vocalist. Stewart had second thoughts about going on the road, however, and quit near the beginning of the new year.

Later Years

Thornhill once again reorganized in early 1949, this time with an eye towards being more commercial. Bookings had dried up, and he wanted to land lucrative hotel engagements. Unfortunately, what Thornhill considered commercial and what the average hotel ballroom patron considered commercial were two different things, and he continued to struggle. During the summer he toyed with the idea of adding strings. His musicians were unhappy with the change in direction. “I think Claude’s getting dollar signs in his eyes,” one of them told Down Beat. “I never looked forward to a day off before, but now I do. We just aren’t playing what we used to.” By this time, Thornhill had returned to the same vocalist formula he had used in the early 1940s, with two featured singers and two backup singers and using all four, plus two singing musicians, as the Snowflakes.

Thornhill continued leading bands into the 1950s, but by the middle part of the decade he had vanished from the public eye. Settling in New Jersey, he spent the rest of his days playing with small units. Thornhill was planning a comeback in 1965 when he suffered a double heart attack and passed away.

Notes

  1. Harding left the band to go back to college in hopes of getting a commission in the armed forces. He appears to have never returned to music. ↩︎

  2. Sterling may have temporarily been filling in for Hughes, or perhaps Hughes had briefly left but returned. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

1940
1941
1942
Bob Jenney
Dick Harding
Betty Claire
Kay Doyle
Martha Wayne
Artie Malvin

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.

Sources

  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Simply Terrific.” Down Beat Nov. 1937: 22.
  3. “Time Out.” Down Beat Jun. 1939: 21.
  4. “Claude Thornhill To Have Band.” Down Beat Sep. 1939: 3.
  5. “Left Out in the Cold.” Down Beat 1 May 1940: 9.
  6. “On the Air: Claude Thornhill.” Billboard 5 Oct. 1940: 12.
  7. “Thornhill Band to Visit.” The Salt Lake City Telegram 23 Oct. 1940: 16.
  8. “Al Harris is Thornhill's New Box Man.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1940: 3.
  9. “We Found!!” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1941: 19.
  10. “New Claude Thornhill Band Big Sensation in Boston.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1941: 23.
  11. “Carnival Ball, Featuring Claude Thornhill's Band, To Be Held Tomorrow Night.” Middlebury Campus [Middlebury, Vermont] 12 Feb. 1941: 4.
  12. “Claude Thornhill To Glen Island.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1941: 3.
  13. “Big-Time, Here Comes Thornhill.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1941: 1.
  14. “On the Stand: Claude Thornhill.” Billboard 10 May 1941: 15.
  15. “Thornhill Adds Two French Horns.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1941: 2.
  16. “Bill Borden In Army; Claude Thornhill Jits.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1941: 3.
  17. “Talent and Tunes On Music Machines.” Billboard 23 Aug. 1941: 74.
  18. “Thornhill's New Girl, New Arranger, Create Big Stir in New York.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 6.
  19. “Thorny Gets Vocal Team.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1941: 4.
  20. “On the Records.” Billboard 10 Jan. 1942: 66.
  21. “Thorny Gets Danny Polo For Faz Spot.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1942: 1.
  22. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 22.
  23. “Philly Earle Neat 19G.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 24.
  24. “Thornhill's 'Pair of Pairs.'” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 12.
  25. “Musicians Flock To Hear Claude Thornhill Ork.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1942: 12.
  26. “Mil Ball Vocalist Began Career at Seven.” The Daily Illini [Urbana-Champaign, Illinois] 8 Apr. 1942: 1.
  27. “Movie Machine Reviews.” Billboard 18 Apr. 1942: 78.
  28. “Vaudeville Review: Stanley, Pittsburgh.” Billboard 25 Apr. 1942: 16.
  29. “Claude's Singer.” Down Beat 15 May 1942: 3.
  30. “Will Bradley Drops Band.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 3.
  31. Advertisement. “Mr. Thornhill.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1942: 21.
  32. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 8 Aug. 1942: 23.
  33. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 5 Sep. 1942: 16.
  34. Carter, Dick. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 26 Sep. 1942: 67.
  35. “Thornhill Only Fair.” Billboard 3 Oct. 1942: 15.
  36. “Thornhill Wants Action; Into Navy.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1942: 1.
  37. Carter, Dick. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 17 Oct. 1942: 68.
  38. “Shaw May Use Thornhill and Sam Donahue.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1942: 1.
  39. “Artie Shaw Ork Off for Secret Destination.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1942: 2.
  40. “Artie Shaw Due Back Next Fall.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1943: 1.
  41. “Thornhill Lays Plans for New Post-War Band.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1945: 15.
  42. Crosby, Bob. “Overseas GI's Crave, Deserve That Music.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1945: 2.
  43. “Music As Written.” Billboard 20 Apr. 1946: 26.
  44. “Music As Written.” Billboard 4 May 1946: 21.
  45. “Thornhill Sets New Band in N.Y.” Down Beat 6 May 1946: 1.
  46. “Thornhill Opens with New Band.” Down Beat 3 Jun. 1946: 5.
  47. “Music As Written.” Billboard 13 Jul. 1946: 24.
  48. “On the Stand: Claude Thornhill.” Billboard 5 Oct. 1942: 16.
  49. “Jeanne Joins Claude Thornhill.” Down Beat 7 Oct. 1946: 1.
  50. “Thornhill Into Strand Feb. 14.” Down Beat 29 Jan. 1947: 15.
  51. “Thornhill Ork On 3-Week Vacation, Budget Cut.” Down Beat 12 Mar. 1947: 1.
  52. “Music As Written.” Billboard 5 Apr. 1947: 21.
  53. “New Thornhill Band Readies For Road Tour.” Down Beat 9 Apr. 1947: 3.
  54. “Music As Written.” Billboard 12 Apr. 1947: 34.
  55. No Title. Down Beat 7 May 1947: 7.
  56. “Thornhill, McKinley Are Superb.” Down Beat 24 Sep. 1947: 3.
  57. “Photographer Sneaks Between Cameras To Catch Thornhill.” Down Beat 24 Sep. 1947: 3.
  58. “Thornhill Folds Ork for Summer.” Billboard 22 May 1948: 23.
  59. “Claude Thornhill To Disband Ork.” Down Beat 2 Jun. 1948: 1.
  60. “Claude Ready For New Tour.” Down Beat 11 Aug. 1948: 1.
  61. “Thornhill Returns.” Down Beat 20 Oct. 1948: 1.
  62. “Stewart To Claude.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1948: 1.
  63. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1949: 5.
  64. “Stewart Cuts Clean.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1949: 13.
  65. “Crew Should Be Pretty Commercial Soon—Claude.” Down Beat 26 Aug. 1949: 2.
  66. “Thornhill Works West.” Down Beat 27 Jan. 1950: 4.
  67. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 10 Aug. 1951: 9.
  68. Webman, Hal. “Claude Thornhill's Band And Claude Has Got Him.” Down Beat 3 Dec. 1952: 1.
  69. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 6 May 1953: 3.