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Claude Thornhill

Although some of his recordings were on the periphery of jazz and his orchestra was at its most popular in the early '40s, Claude Thornhill's main importance to jazz was the influence that his arrangements and orchestra's sound had on cool jazz of the late '40s. After studying at a music conservatory and playing piano in bands based in the Midwest, Thornhill worked for Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman in 1934, and for Ray Noble's American band of 1935-1936 (for whom he also arranged). He appeared on some Billie Holiday records and his arrangement of "Loch Lomond" was a big hit for Maxine Sullivan. Although he recorded as a leader in 1937, it was in 1940 that Thornhill put together his own orchestra. 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. After a period in the miliary (1942-1945), Thornhill put together a new orchestra, retaining the services of Gil Evans (and sometimes using Gerry Mulligan charts as well) and featuring such soloists as altoist Lee Konitz, clarinetist Danny Polo, and trumpeter Red Rodney. Some of Evans' bop-ish arrangements for the group were classic, and the Miles Davis Nonet of 1948 was based on many of the cool-toned principles of the Thornhill big band. However, by then the pianist's glory days were over. He continued leading bands on a part-time basis up until his death, but Claude Thornhill was largely neglected and forgotten during his final 15 years.



Claude Thornhill: 1941-42

Claude Thornhill: 1941-42

Source: JazzWax by Marc Myers

For me, music doesn't spin in a vacuum. As a historian, once I know the date of a recording, a series of mental overlays drop into place—including the period's socio-political events, technological and economic developments, cultural trends, and the country's overall mood. Processing music this way comes in particularly handy when listening to Claude Thornhill's recordings between 1940 and '53, many of which have been overlooked today or written off by big-band and jazz fans. [Pictured above: Claude Thornhill in ...



Claude Thornhill: Godfather of Cool

Claude Thornhill:  Godfather of Cool

Source: Michael Ricci

Claude Thornhill was a pianist, composer, and arranger whose 1940s big band helped shape the sound of modern jazz, with orchestral bop and ethereal ballads tinged with classical influences that set the stage for later masterpieces by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Through his unusual instrumentation and subtle sense of dynamics, Thornhill and his collaborator Evans created music that was powerful yet quiet and that “hung like a cloud,” as Evans said. This week Night Lights pays a symbolic centennial ...


Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

1949-1953 Performances

Unknown label






Le Chant du Monde


Best Of The Big Bands

Le Chant du Monde


1948 - The Song Is You

Le Chant du Monde




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