Claude Thornhill (Terre Haute, Indiana, August 10, 1908 – July 1, 1965, Caldwell, New Jersey) was an American pianist, arranger, composer, and bandleader. He composed the jazz and pop standards "Snowfall" and "I Wish I Had You", the last recorded by Billie Holliday.
As a youth, he was recognized as an extraordinary talent and formed a traveling duo with Danny Polo, a musical prodigy on the clarinet and trumpet from nearby Clinton, Indiana. As a student at Garfield High School in Terre Haute, he played with several theater bands.
Thornhill entered the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at age 16. That same year he and clarinetist Artie Shaw started their careers at the Golden Pheasant in Cleveland, Ohio with the Austin Wiley Orchestra. Thornhill and Shaw went to New York together in 1931.
Claude went to the West Coast in the late 1930s with the Bob Hope Radio Show, and arranged for Judy Garland in Babes in Arms.
In 1935, he played on sessions for Glenn Miller's first recordings under his own name, as Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. He played on Glenn Miller's composition "Solo Hop," which was released on Columbia Records.
After playing for Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Glenn Miller, and Billie Holiday, and arranging "Loch Lomond" and "Annie Laurie" for Maxine Sullivan, in 1939 he founded his Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Danny Polo was his lead clarinet player. Although the Thornhill band was originally a sophisticated dance band, it became known for its many superior jazz musicians and for Thornhill's and Gil Evans' innovative arrangements; its "Portrait of a Guinea Farm" has become a classic jazz recording.
The band played without vibrato so that the timbres of the instruments could be better appreciated, and Thornhill encouraged the musicians to develop cool-sounding tones. The band was popular with both musicians and the public; the Miles Davis Nonet was modeled in part on Thornhill's cool sound and use of unconventional instrumentation. The band's most successful records were "Snowfall," "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "Love for Love."
His most famous recording, "Snowfall," was released in 1941 as Columbia 36268. He released the song also as a V-Disc recording, as V-Disc 271A1.
Playing at the Paramount Theater in New York for $10,000 a week in 1942, Thornhill dropped everything to enlist in the US Navy to support the war effort. As chief musician, he played shows across the Pacific Theater with Jackie Cooper as his drummer and Dennis Day as his vocalist.
In 1946, he was discharged from the Navy. Then in April, he reformed his ensemble. He kept his same stylistic lines, but added some Bop lines to it. He got his old members of Danny Polo, Gerry Mulligan, and Barry Galbraith back together, but also added new members like Red Rodney, Lee Konitz, Joe Shulman and Bill Barber. Barber was a tuba player, who was considered as a "soft brass" player rather than a bass as to not interfere with (Joe) Shulman on the bass. Their creative and immaculately clean and delicate interpretation of Evans’s arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s fast bop theme "Anthropology" (1947) provides a particularly noteworthy example of Thornhill’s style, which influenced Miles Davis’s recordings in 1949 for Capitol and many musicians who followed .
In the mid 1950s, Thornhill was briefly Tony Bennett's musical director.
He offered his big band library to Gerry Mulligan when Gerry formed the Concert Jazz Band, but Gerry regretfully declined the gift, since his instrumentation was different. A large portion of his extensive library of music is currently held by Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
After his discharge from the Navy he continued to perform with his orchestra until his death of a heart attack at 1:30 a.m., July 2, 1965, at his home in Caldwell, New Jersey. Claude was booked at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at the time, the engagement was kept in his honor with his music director in his place. He was survived by his wife, actress Ruth Thornhill, and his mother, Maude Thornhill (81 at the time), of Terre Haute, Indiana, still active at the time conducting choirs.
Claude Thornhill's compositions included the standard "Snowfall", "I Wish I Had You", recorded by Billie Holiday and Fats Waller, "Let's Go", "Shore Road", "Portrait Of A Guinea Farm", "Lodge Podge", "Rustle Of Spring", "It's Time For Us To Part", "It Was A Lover And His Lass", "The Little Red Man", "Memory Of An Island", and "Where Has My Little Dog Gone?"
In 1984, Claude Thornhill was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
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