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 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]
The rap on Thornhill is that the band was an easy-listening mood-maker rather than a showcase for hot instrumental jazz experiments or daring soloists. Those who do find value in Thornhill tend to cling to his orchestras of the late '40s—which featured bop-impressionist arrangements by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan.
But after listening to much of Thornhill's output recorded over this 13-year period, I actually found myself drawn to his early war years. The country's anxiety level was at a break-point, and while music to help listeners and dancers let off steam was essential for the war effort, so was smart music that helped put people at ease. Thornhill's recordings between 1941 and '42 were deft, charming and elegantly engaging thanks to the high level of musicianship and arrangers.
Thornhill was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and throughout the '30s recorded in early bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Ray Noble and many others. He also arranged for many of these bands.
In 1939, Thornhill became musical director of Skinnay Ennis's band—the house orchestra for Bob Hope's radio show. That's where he met arranger Evans. Soon, Thornhill had designs on starting his own band. He penned 40 arrangements, assembled musicians and, thanks to close friend Glenn Miller, subbed for the Miller band on several key engagements.
But a series of business-related mishaps led to commercial dead ends on both coasts. Finally in March '41, Thornhill was booked into the popular Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, N.Y., giving his band considerable visibility. Signed to Columbia, Thornhill began recording steadily. But his music wasn't the high-octane swing fare favored by many black and white bands of the pre-war years. Instead, there was something romantic about the band's book—short, dramatic crescendos and extended soft landings framed by Thornhill's cascading piano.
Which made sense. In the months leading up to America's entry into the war, there was a powerful appetite for music that not only stirred the feet but also soothed the soul. Thornhill liked to take tempos at a pulse's pace, leaving plenty of space for his clarinet-heavy reed section and assuring French horns. But this was no society band. There was plenty of action between the lines for those with a careful ear.
Even before the war, Thornhill chose musicians with care. For instance, in October 1941, the band featured Rusty Dedrick, Conrad Gozzo, Bob Sprentall (tp); Tasso Harris and Bob Jenney (tb); Richard Hall, Vincent Jacobs (frh); Irving Fazola (cl) Dale Brown amd Jack Ferrier (cl,as); Ted Goddard (cl,as,ts); John Nelson, Hammond Russum (cl,ts); Jimmy Abato, Lester Merkin (cl,bar); Claude Thornhill (p,arr); Barry Galbraith (g); Harvey Sell (b,arr) and Nick Fatool (d).
Once the war started, Thornhill's band took repeated hard hits as the draft plucked player after player. Eventually Thornhill also wound up in the service, where he played in Artie Shaw's Navy band for a time. After the war, when the big band era was hamstrung by prohibitive entertainment taxes, a slowing economy and newly minted stay-at-home couples, Thornhill's arrangements remained lush but also were infused with increased jazz sensibilities to reflect the trends in music.
Thornhill's pre-war and war-time aggregations captured the mood of the country unlike any other band. It was similar to the Miller band in its tricked-out tranquility but not nearly as conservative or sticky-gothic. Much credit belongs with Gil Evans, who managed to tuck his sly wit within the lush instrumental foliage.
Examples of Evans brilliant writing for Thornhill during these years include Somebody Has Taken My Place , Lamp of Memory, Smiles, America, I Love You, Something to Remember You By, Buster's Last Stand, Lullaby of the Rain, There's a Small Hotel, I Don't Know Why and Moments Like This. Even the Evans-arranged novelty number, Count Me In, has a home-spun, hip appeal.
The patient listener will find many rewards in Thornhill's 1941 and '42 recordings. You'll hear other musicians who won the chairs of inducted instrumentalists, including John Graas (French horn), Irv Cotler (drums) and Danny Polo (clarinet). Best of all, you'll hear Gil Evans developing rich avant-garde concepts that would serve him well in the late '40s and '50s.
Today, John Greenspan of KSFR-Sante Fe, N.M., will be interviewing me about my book Why Jazz Happened at 11:15 (EST). Go here to listen live.
Tonight, join me and jazz writer Ira Gitler at Barnes & Noble on 82nd St. and Broadway in New York at 7 p.m. Ira will be interviewing me on why the jazz LP began as a 10-inch disc and didn't grow to 12 inches until the mid-'50s. He'll also be talking about watching Zoot Sims record his first long solo on an LP.