Claude Thornhill Day

August 10, 1908 – July 1, 1965

There’s a Small Hotel

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Pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader Claude Thornhill was born on August 10, 1909 in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Thornhill studied piano extensively starting at the age of ten, attending the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Curtis Institute.

He had many short-term jobs as a sideman including with Austin Wylie, Hal Kemp, Don Voorhees, Freddy Martin, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman (in 1934), Leo Reisman and Ray Noble.

Thornhill was singer Maxine Sullivan’s musical director when she had a hit with “Loch Lomond” and he gained experience playing and arranging in the Hollywood studios.

In 1940 he formed the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, an unusual band that fell between swing and sweet, emphasized ballads, unique tone colors and long notes, and had horns that played with very little vibrato.

Thornhill sometimes had his five reeds playing clarinets in unison to create an eerie sound, his ensemble included a French horn or two (and after 1946 a tuba), the band often turned classical themes into jazz, and his theme “Snowfall” became a hit.

The Thornhill Orchestra broke up later in 1942 when its leader joined the military but he brought it back together in 1946 with Gil Evans (who had been in the earlier version) becoming the chief arranger.

Very open to bebop, Evans’ arrangements for the band (which included trumpeter Red Rodney and altoist Lee Konitz among its key soloists) were often classic and helped lead the way towards the Cool Jazz movement.

“A Sunday Kind Of Love” (featuring singer Fran Warren) was a hit for the band.

In 1950 Thornhill reluctantly broke up his orchestra but he led occasional big band dates (including an album of Gerry Mulligan arrangements) throughout the decade, remaining occasionally active until his death in 1965 from a heart attack.

Here is Claude Thornhill in the early 1960s playing one of his more popular arrangements, “There’s A Small Hotel.”

-Scott Yanow


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