Claude Thornhill Biography

10 August 1909, Terra Haute, Indiana, USA, d. 1 July 1965, New York City, New York, USA. Thornhill studied piano formally, playing jazz with a friend, Danny Polo. In the early 30s he was resident in New York City, playing with Hal Kemp, Don Voorhees, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and many other leaders. In the mid-30s he worked with Ray Noble and André Kostelanetz. Later in the decade he was busily writing arrangements for several bands and singers, and one song recorded by Maxine Sullivan (‘Loch Lomond’) was a huge hit. His successes for others led him to form his own band, hiring emerging talents such as Lee Konitz, Red Rodney and Gerry Mulligan, while his arranging staff included Gil Evans, who would later frequently assert how much his time with Thornhill had influenced his writing.

In his 1940 band Thornhill sought perfect intonation from his musicians and balance between the sections. He urged his sidemen to eliminate vibrato, aiding this effect by adding French horns, themselves essentially vibratoless instruments. The resulting pastel-shaded musical patterns and sustained chords, against which Thornhill made delicate solo statements on piano, was in striking contrast to the sound of other big bands of the period. Ill health forced him to disband in 1948, but he returned to playing in the 50s and continued on an occasional basis until his sudden death in July 1965. Lasting testimony to Thornhill lies in the arranging styles of both Evans and Mulligan, both of whom long afterwards pursued concepts and sounds rooted in Thornhill’s band of the early 40s.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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