Pre-birth of the Cool: Claude Thornhill
There was a prestige in playing for Thornhill in the late 1940s; musicians loved the band and appreciated its innovative sound, now augmented by French horns and a tuba. There simply weren’t any bands that sounded like the Thornhill orchestra. In 1948, Thelonious Monk told a writer, “Thornhill’s the only really good band I’ve heard in years.” Still, it remained a dance band, even if it was a highly sophisticated one. Jazz historians have spotlighted it for its progressive influences, but it also showed up in reader polls as a “sweet” band—connoting a lighter, poppier side of swing—and it featured talented, underrated singers such as Gene Williams and Fran Warren, who can be heard on Thornhill’s 1946 hit “Sunday Kind Of Love.”
The late 1940s may have been an artistic zenith for Thornhill, but troubled times followed. Like many big-band leaders of the time he faced considerable financial pressures, and he continued to battle personal problems, with two marriages ending in divorce. Evans moved on, and after spending years on Columbia, Thornhill went to a new label, Victor, that wanted him to stick to the sweet sound. Still, he would record one last great outing as a bandleader in the spring of 1953, drawing on a number of charts that Gerry Mulligan had written for the band several years earlier. These recordings can be heard on the CD 1949–1953 Performances put out by the Hep label, which has issued seven other CDs that document the Thornhill band from the beginning of the 1940s through the early 1950s.
The last decade of Thornhill’s life saw him working with Tony Bennett and leading society-type bands that could sometimes emulate the classic Thornhill sound. In later years, as he watched the success of so-called “ghost” versions of bands whose leaders were no longer living, he remarked wryly to a young member of his band, “I guess you have to be dead to make it these days.” He struggled, but he managed to stop drinking and find some happiness in a third marriage. In 1965, he was getting ready to start a new series of gigs in Atlantic City when he died from a heart attack at the age of 56. After his passing Duke Ellington said, “I wonder if the world will ever know how much it had in this beautiful man.” Nearly 50 years on, Thornhill remains in the shadows of jazz history, but his influence endures in the modern sound of the music.
—David Brent Johnson
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