Claude Thornhill was born on August 10, 1909 in Terre Haute, Indiana and as a youth was recognized as an extraordinary piano talent and along with clarinet and trumpet prodigy Danny Polo, formed a traveling duo. While a student at Garfield High School he played with several theater bands before entering the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at age sixteen.
He and clarinetist Artie Shaw started their careers together at the Golden Pheasant in Cleveland, Ohio playing in the Austin Wiley Orchestra. By 1931 they were in New York City and in 1935 he was playing on sessions with Glenn Miller, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Billie Holiday and arranged Loch Lomond and Annie Laurie for Maxine Sullivan.
Later in the decade he moved out to the West Coast with the Bob Hope Radio Show and arranged for Judy Garland in Babes in Arms. In 1939 he founded the Claude Thornhill Orchestra with his old friend Danny Polo was his lead clarinetist. Although the band was a sophisticated dance band, it became known for its superior jazz musicians and for his and Gil Evans’s arrangements.
Encouraging the musicians to develop cool-sounding tones, the band played without vibrato. The band was popular with both musicians and the public and Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool nonet was modeled in part on Thornhill’s sound and unconventional instrumentation. The band’s most successful records were Snowfall, A Sunday Kind of Love, and Love for Love.
1942 saw him enlisting in the Navy and playing across the Pacific Theater with Jackie Cooper as his drummer and Dennis Day as his vocalist. After his discharge in ‘46 he reunited his ensemble and Danny Polo, Gerry Mulligan and Barry Galbraith returned with new members, Red Rodney, Lee Konitz, Joe Shulman, and Bill Barber. For a brief time in the mid 1950s, Claude was briefly Tony Bennett’s musical director.
Pianist, arranger, composer, and bandleader Claude Thornhill passed away on July 1, 1965. A large portion of his extensive library of music is currently held by Drury University in Springfield, Missouri and in 1984 he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
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