In 1965, Thornhill died at home after suffering two heart attacks within an hour, and his band completed a scheduled engagement at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey under the direction of singer-saxophonist Johnny McAfee.
While certain other big bands have always seemed to come up in conversation, Thornhill merits being remembered, too.
"I don't know if Claude will be, but I think that he should be. He deserves this," Dedrick commented. "Actually, I have a better memory for things years and years ago than what happened yesterday."
"Claude Thornhill Is Dead at 56; Pianist Led Band in Swing Era," New York Times, Jul. 2, 1965, p.29, col.4.
Crosbie, Ian. "Claude Thornhill," Coda, Oct. 1975, p.2+.
---. "Prophet Without Honour," Jazz Journal International, Mar. 1971, pp.6-9.
---. "Prophet Without Honour [cont.]," Jazz Journal International, Apr. 1971, pp.28-31.
Garrod, Charles. Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra (Zephyrfills, FL: Joyce Music, 1975).
Kinkle, Roger D. The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950: Volume 3,
Biographies L Through Z (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1974), p.1855-1856.
Popa, Christopher. Interview with Rusty Dedrick, Mar. 17, 2005.
Simon, George T. "Claude Thornhill," in The Big Bands (New York City: The Macmillan Company, 1967),
"Social Security Death Index," rootsweb.com.
"Thornhill, 55, Band Leader, Dies in N.J.," Chicago Tribune, Jul. 2, 1965, p.B6.
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"The Sound Hung Like a Cloud"
by Christopher Popa December 2006
He was warm, charming, and delightful (even strange at times), and led a beautiful-sounding orchestra, that, unlike others, included two French horns, a six-man clarinet choir, and, later, a tuba.
"It was unique," trumpeter Rusty Dedrick, an alumnus of the Claude Thornhill orchestra, told me. "That was one of the reasons that the band had its own identifying stamp. Because of the instrumentation no other band had done - not to my knowledge, anyway."
Dedrick was employed by Thornhill during two periods between 1941 and 1947.
"I was with the band before World War II," he said. "I spent four years in the Air Force, then I was back with the band, post-war."
Claude Thornhill, ca. 1949
birth Aug. 13, 1909, Terre Haute, IN
death Jul. 1, 1965, Caldwell, NJ, heart attack
father a coal miner
mother Maude Thornhill, a church organist / choir director,
b.Sept. 8,1885, d.May 1967
first wife not known, div.1942?
second wife not known, div.1952
third wife Ruth Cameron, a former actress, m.1952
education Garfield High School, Terre Haute, IN
musical training unconfirmed studies at The Cincinnati Conservatory
of Music (1925) and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia; registered for,
but did not complete, course in advanced harmony at the University
of Kentucky (1927)
military service U.S. Navy, 1942-45
Thornhill earned admiration from musicians when he worked for various bands early on, including Hal Kemp (1930-31), at Billy Rose's Music Hall with Benny Goodman (1934), Ray Noble (1935-36), and as arranger on recordings and radio with Andre Kostelanetz (1936).
"He was famous for having written for Andre Kostelanetz and studio bands in the city," Dedrick offered. "Mostly among musicians."
The public didn't become aware of him until 1937, when Thornhill sponsored a young singer, Maxine Sullivan, working as her accompanist, arranger, and musical director on a swing adaptation of Loch Lomond, which became a hit record.
"He wasn't really known widely, publicly, no," Dedrick confirmed. "The only thing that made him famous... < begins singing > 'You take the high road and I'll take the low road.' "
Thornhill then arranged Loch Lomond for Goodman (whose band recorded it in 1937, then played it at Carnegie Hall in January 1938), and it further enhanced awareness of Thornhill.
"He gained some fame with that," Dedrick said.
In 1939, Thornhill decided to form a big band, which, after much thought and preparation, made its debut in 1940.
Claude Thornhill, In His Own Words
"My intention was to create something new and arresting, an orchestra different from others on the scene - I wrote sixty arrangements to start with."
"We rehearsed every afternoon, rain or shine. Perfect intonations in the sections and balance of the overall sound of the orchestra were emphasized."
"With the exception of certain places in our arrangements, the orchestra played without vibrato. Vibrato was used to highten expressiveness."
"It seems to me that touch and tone are pretty much overlooked by pianists who are leading bands nowadays. You can get so many more and better musical effects if you pay attention to those little, shall I say, niceties."
The new Thornhill band was hired to work at the Capitol Park Casino in Hartford, Connecticut from April 8 to May 15 (though the promoter padlocked the place and skipped town after only three days), the Rendezvous Ballroom at Balboa Beach, California from June 1 to 30 (though the manager decided to open only a few nights a week), then six weeks at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, California, until September 15 (and Thornhill was informed not to come back).
a focused mood,
Dedrick told me that he can still remember how, after Thornhill came back east, they met.
"Sure," he offered. "I was working with Red Norvo, and we played a hotel in Boston. Oh gosh, I can't think of the name of it. We were there for, maybe, a month or something. And Claude used to come in and have dinner or sit and listen to the band."
When the engagement was up, the Norvo band went to New York City.
"I used to stay at a place called the Century Hotel," Dedrick continued. "About 2 a.m., the phone rang, and it was Claude calling from Boston, asking me to join what was to be his new band. And the interesting thing was that he had a recording contract. He was going in Glen Island Casino, for the traditional 'build-up' that Glenn Miller got, and a couple of other bands."
It came as a surprise to be offered a job by Thornhill.
"I didn't know I was being auditioned or anything," Dedrick pointed out.
But, with the prospect of a steadier income, he decided to leave Norvo.
"He would usually work a little, then lay off a little. And this was a period when we were laying off a little," Dedrick laughed. "Before making that decision, I tried to reach Red and anyone... Miles Rinker, who was Mildred Bailey's brother, by the way, was his road manager, and I tried to reach him. I couldn't reach anyone. Claude called me back the following night and I said, 'Yes.'"
Then Norvo found out.
"A few hours later, the word had gotten out," Dedrick went on. "Red came in, storming into the room, angry, because I was leaving the band. He said, 'I wouldn't mind if you were going with Tommy or Benny or somebody.' But he says, 'With that band?'"
Happily, he didn't hold a grudge for too long.
"The funny thing is, a few months later, we were at Glen Island Casino and in comes Red Norvo with a group of publishers," Dedrick said. "We were, sort of, embarassed and didn't know what to do. We finished the set and Red said . . . 'Come over to the table' and we did. He says, 'Rusty, I owe you an apology. The band is beautiful!' And it was."
Critic George T. Simon wrote years afterwards, "For sheer musical beauty, for gorgeous musical moods, for imagination and wit and taste and originality and consistently fine musicianship, there was never a band that could match Claude Thornhill's."
Gil Evans, Thornhill's chief arranger, once remarked, "The sound hung like a cloud."
Dedrick also talked about it being quite beautiful.
"I would say very, and underline very," he told me. "Very, very pleasant."
Everyone agrees that one of the prettiest works by Thornhill was Snowfall, which became his theme song and was first recorded at Liederkrantz Hall in New York City.
"Oh sure," Dedrick stated. "It was not only his arrangement, it was his composition. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing."
Recommended Listening - Select List
Sleepy Serenade Gil Borden, arr. 4/13/41, Okeh
Snowfall Claude Thornhill, arr. 5/26/41, Columbia
Where Or When Claude Thornhill, arr. 5/26/41, Columbia
Orange Blossom Lane Dick Harding, voc. / Andy Phillips, arr. 8/25/41, Columbia
Baby Mine Lillian Lane, voc. / Andy Phillips, arr. 10/6/41, Columbia
Autumn Nocturne Claude Thornhill, arr. 10/6/41, Columbia
Something to Remember You By Pair of Pairs, voc. / Gil Evans, arr. 2/5/42, Columbia
Night and Day Claude Thornhill, arr. 2/12/42, Columbia
Be Careful, It's My Heart Lillian Lane, voc. / Gil Evans, arr. 6/19/42, Columbia
There's a Small Hotel Snowflakes, voc. / Gil Evans, arr. 7/24/42, Columbia
I Don't Know Why Snowflakes, voc. / Gil Evans, arr. 7/24/42, Columbia
Someone to Watch Over Me Gil Evans, arr. 5/48, Thesaurus transcription
Lest one think that the band only played ballads, listen to, for example, Thornhill's credible boogie-woogie piano on The Doll Dance; the varied textures of The Bad Humour Man (a vocal for Bob Jenney, Jack's brother); the fine solos on the novelty Pop Goes the Weasel; or more "advanced" pieces like Portrait of a Guinea Farm and Buster's Last Stand. There were also touches of modern classical music included, such as Hungarian Dance No.5, Traumerei, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and, later, Warsaw Concerto.
"Debussy was Claude's favorite," Dedrick suggested. "He was, sort of, geared to that kind of impressionistic thing, if you want to consider that classical."
All of the music described above was well-played, even if it didn't fit the definition of a typical swing band. So did it ever swing?
"Not as much as the swing bands," Dedrick responded. "And I call the swing bands Benny Goodman and those guys... Count Basie... those bands were swing bands. Claude's was not, primarily, a swing band, no. It could swing, but that was not the predominant feature."
Besides the writing, credit must be given to the members of the Thornhill orchestra.
"It was a great band," Dedrick enthused.
trumpeter-composer Lyle "Rusty" Dedrick, ca.1970s
Thornhill himself played wonderful solos on piano, ranging from soft and sensitive to rollicking and ragtime, adding just the right touches. But he left the bulk of the arranging and composing chores to others.
"With the band, he rarely wrote," Dedrick said. "Gil Evans wrote the book."
Besides Thornhill and Dedrick, among the players of distinction in the orchestra were clarinetist Irving Fazola, trumpeter Conrad Gozzo, and trombonists Tasso Harris and Bob Jenney.
They were all present when the Thornhill band opened at Glen Island Casino on March 20, 1941.
"First off, it was a beautiful place," Dedrick recalled. "Secondly, it had the reputation, because the bands that went in there got a lot of air time and exposure. They built up some names - Glenn Miller being first and foremost among them, but Charlie Spivak and, oh, I don't know, a couple of other bands."
Of course, it helped to convince Dedrick to take the job offer from Thornhill.
"The fact that we were going in there was a factor in [ my ] joining that band," he reminded me.
Radio broadcasts from Glen Island Casino helped to increase the popularity of the Thornhill band. They did so well during their two months at the Casino in '41 that they were invited back for the full summer season the following year.
"There used to be a bar called The Forest Bar in Manhattan. And on our day off, like a Monday, guys would go in and hang out in there," Dedrick recollected. "And a fellow musician said to me, 'The band is great! The band is beautiful! But I wouldn't want to play with that band!' I said, 'Why?,' incredulously. He says, 'Because you must rehearse all the time to get that sound that way!' The fact is, we didn't."
Apparently, there was a pre-established mood or feel for different kinds of pieces.
"Let me put it mathematically," he proposed. "There was sound '1,' sound '2,' sound 'a,' or sound 'b,' or something. And many of the arrangements were built around a certain sound, and when we did rehearse (like, it would be after the job, starting at 1:30 in the morning), Claude would say, 'That's the such-and-such sound,' in this new arrangement. And we knew automatically how to treat it. So, as far as long, tedious rehearsals, no, we didn't. Plus, the personnel was so good, everybody knew what to do."
Inevitably, there were changes among the sidemen. Guitarist Barry Galbraith and drummer Nick Fatool joined during the summer of '41. Several months later, the trumpet section was Dedrick and Gozzo, with Billy Butterfield on the third part.
But Dedrick saves the lion's share of praise for the lead work of Gozzo, who was his roommate while on the band.
"Gozzo was the greatest trumpet player in the world, that ever lived, for that kind of playing," he boasted. "When he played on top of a band, the phrasing, the time, the musicality of the whole thing, excelled. He had a sound that was just like a blanket over the band. I run out of adjectives when I think of playing with him. He was that great."
Thornhill smiles from the piano,
during a 1940s dance date
Was the band booker Sy Shribman ever around when they performed?
"He was in Boston, but he did promote the band," Dedrick answered. "The Shribman brothers, Sy and Charlie."
After the United States was dragged into World War II, Dedrick left Thornhill.
"We were playing at Glen Island Casino on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. The waiters come running up to the band. 'The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!' Everyone said, 'Who's Pearl Harbor?' Nobody knew what that was," he recalled.
"But I was already fighting the draft; the draft was in action at that time, and I was trying to get a deferment," he continued. "This sounds super patriotic, but it's not really that way: I left the band New Year's Eve that year, 1941 into '42. January 7th (that's a month after Pearl Harbor), I went and enlisted. But the reason I did, I knew I was going to be drafted. So I had a chance to get into an Air Force band out in Mitchell Field, Long Island, so I grabbed onto that. It was a fortunate thing for me."
Within a short time, other sidemen in Thornhill's band went into the service, too.
"One, two, three four, soon thereafter," he chuckled. "I was most vulnerable, I guess you would say, because of my age and everything at that time. I had no dependents."
The band continued with replacements, and eventually performed at the Paramount Theater in New York City for $10,000 a week. But later that year, following an engagement at the Palace Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, Thornhill finally disbanded.
On October 26, 1942, he joined the Navy, first as an Apprentice Seaman with Artie Shaw's Navy band, The Rangers, then, promoted to the rank of Chief Musician, as leader of his own service group in Hawaii. Eventually, he helped to put together special shows and dance band units made up of Navy personnel who played all over the Pacific war theater; one of his drummers was the actor Jackie Cooper, and one of his singers was Dennis Day.
Both Thornhill and Dedrick were discharged in 1945. Initially, Dedrick took a job with the new Ray McKinley band, the one for which Eddie Sauter wrote many arrangements.
"I was working with that band, while Claude was making up his mind what to do," he explained. "Finally, he re-organized."
Dedrick turned in his notice to McKinley.
"I left that band, actually for less money to go back with Claude," he noted.
Rehearsals began in April 1946, and the new Thornhill orchestra made its first public appearance on May 29th at the Post Lodge in Larchmont, New York.
"Well < laughs >, I didn't think of it as loyalty," Dedrick admitted. "I just thought of it as something that interested me so much, musically and personally, too."
A number of other former players came back to be with Thornhill, too.
"It picked up, pretty much where it left off," he stated. "It was like a real, wonderful homecoming for everybody. At that time, as a little sidelight, Conrad Gozzo was with Woody Herman. And everybody in the brass section - like Bob Jenney and Tasso Harris, me, and everybody - wanted to get 'Goz' back. But Woody was paying him more than Claude could pay him, so he didn't come back."
Arrangers Gil Evans and Bill Borden also returned, as did trumpeter Louis Mucci and tenor saxophonist Jack Ferrier, both of whom had played in earlier editions.
"The band that constituted the personnel of the pre-war era pretty much flocked back to the band when it re-organized after the war," Dedrick related. "And that's a clue, you know. Because most everyone enjoyed it so much."
Their 1946-47 itinerary included such venues as Eastwood Gardens in Detroit, Michigan; the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City; the Hotel Sherman in Chicago; the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey; and the Clique in Philadelphia.
With everyone doing their part, the Thornhill orchestra was not unlike a sports team, working together, toward a common goal.
"Yes, and the quarterback was the lead trumpet," he concurred. "That was the nature of the ensemble band that Claude had."
New recordings for Columbia during the period included a romantic Far Away Island, a peppy Under the Willow Tree (sung by Buddy Hughes), a swinging Arab Dance (written by Tchaikovsky but adapted by Gil Evans), and the most successful of all, A Sunday Kind of
Love, with vocalist Fran Warren.
"Other than [ Loch Lomond ] . . . this was probably the only one that would approach hit status of anything Claude ever did," Dedrick noted.
During his second stint with Thornhill, he began writing a few arrangements for the band.
"Oh, sure," he affirmed.
They included Why Did I Have to Fall in Love with You?, Deed I Do, and Oh,You Beautiful Doll, the first a vocal for Fran Warren, the latter two sung by Gene Williams.
"I can't recall them all," Dedrick confessed. "But Claude was great about that, letting you write, as much as you wanted to. He would give you an assignment, sometimes, if it was something they had to do for a publisher, on a recording or something. I did some of those. But Gil was really the principal [ arranger ]."
Yet, in spite of all that great talent, the public didn't seem to connect as easily to Thornhill, as they did to the sounds coming from other bands.
"I think there's something to that," Dedrick allowed. "I would have my opinion, which would not necessarily be factual or be shared by everyone. But some of us used to think that he played too many slow things. We wanted to swing, you know < chuckles >. His interest was more in the ballads and the beautiful things; they were beautiful, too! But, I don't know if that had anything to do with not reaching the public. That's probably not factual. I think that the timing, the demise of the big bands, had more to do with it."
Perhaps part of the disconnect was traceable to Thornhill himself.
"I don't think he was close to anyone in the band, as exemplified by, maybe, Red Norvo, who was close to everybody in the band... in his band," Dedrick mentioned. "It's hard to describe. See, he [ Thornhill ] had problems - psychological, mental, or something. He was, at one point, getting electric shock treatments to help his condition. I don't know, medically, how they work, except they block out your memory, temporarily or something."
As an illustration, Dedrick recalled an incident which took place while the band was with a guest, Peggy Ryan, at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia.
"This little Hollywood actress, she was on the bill and Claude couldn't remember her name. We would open up the show and he would have to announce her," Dedrick explained. "He couldn't remember her name, so he had the band holler her name to bring her on."
In a recording studio, ca.1950s
Was Thornhill well-suited to be the leader of a big band?
"No, no < laughs >, he had no personality at all," according to Dedrick. "Like, some bandleaders... well, there are what we call the 'commercial' bands that had a front man who was great, like a Kay Kyser . . . But, even among the musical bands, like Tommy, some of the other leaders were a little bit more adroit at making an announcement. Claude was not. He could have gotten farther and done better, maybe, if he had been better with the 'yacking-it-up' thing."
Even A Sunday Kind of Love wasn't enough.
"Claude was having financial problems, and he decided to re-organize the band," Dedrick said. "We were finishing up a theater... Strand Theater, in New York... and he interviewed each guy, one-by-one, that is, actually the band manager [ talked to them ]... 'Would you like to stay?' And most of the band left, right then."
That's when Thornhill's 'bebop' band came together, and tunes such as Lodge Podge (a Thornhill original), Anthropology, Robbins' Nest, Donna Lee, and Yardbird Suite were added to the group's music library.
"I would have stayed with the band, but I had gotten married while I was in the service and
my wife was pregnant, and I just didn't want to go on the road anymore," Dedrick reasoned.
Over the next few years, new faces included (at various times) Red Rodney, Eddie Zandy, and Johnny Carisi on trumpets; Danny Polo, Lee Konitz, Mickey Folus, Gerry Mulligan, Hal McKusick, Dick Hafer, and Herb Geller in the reed section; Joe Shulman on bass; and Bill Exner at the drums.
Dedrick established himself as a studio musician in New York City during the '50s, and it is stated in a Thornhill discography that he was on hand for an October 1952 job at the Hotel Statler there, including some radio broadcasts.
"I remember once, Claude was working at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans," Dedrick reported. "He used to call me once-in-a-while to do something, like an individual date with the band, long after I had left. But he called from New Orleans and wanted me to come down and re-join down there. And I remember saying, 'I'd love to but I'm just starting to get my foot in the door in New York City, so I didn't do it. I would have enjoyed it, but... I don't know... long, long ago."
Now age 88, Dedrick still writes, but plays only for fun. He told me that he doesn't listen to the old records when he was with Thornhill's band.
"No," he admitted. "I don't play my own records."
Thornhill [ r., ca.1960s ] continued touring the country with bands intermittently, playing at college proms and large dance pavilions into the early '60s.
He downsized to a sextet (plus himself) to make a final recording, for Bill Borden's Monmouth-Evergreen label, in 1963.
"Bill Borden used to write some of the ballads for Claude," reminded Dedrick.