Claude Thornhill & West Coast jazz | Down Beat 14, 1947

Down Beat 14, no. 22 (Oct. 22, 1947)

Thornhill’s 1940s big band helped shape the sound of modern jazz, and orchestral bop and ethereal ballads tinged with classical influences set the stage for masterpieces by Miles Davis and helped to inspire the West Coast or “cool jazz” movement of the 1950s. Thornhill and collaborator Gil Evans created a beautifully colored and sophisticated tapestry of music that would be referenced and known around the world.

The birth of the cool began in Thornhill’s hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., a city on the Wabash River where Thornhill was born Aug. 10, 1908. The shy-but-gifted boy was a prodigal pianist, playing as a teenager in movie houses, on riverboats and with local orchestras. The Terre Haute Star, somewhat prophetically, called him “years ahead of his time in the playing of modern popular music.” Thornhill later claimed that he had attended various conservatories, but his talent flourished locally in a city with a top-flight classical symphony and vibrant musical culture.

Thornhill left Terre Haute by the end of the 1920s and spent the next decade making a slow but steady climb to bandleader. He became good friends with a young, up-and-coming clarinetist named Artie Shaw, who described him as “a funny-looking gent, with a potato nose and round Germanic face…It wasn’t easy for him to express himself. But he was more guileful than he appeared, because he generally got what he wanted.” [more]

Claude Thornhill – Buster’s Last Stand (1942)
Jazz writer Allen Lowe described “Buster’s Last Stand” as “a bravura swinger, unlike anything else of its time, a creation way outside of Swing Era conventions, block-voiced with feathery lightness and kicked along with the momentum of a tin can along a curb.”
Claude Thornhill And His Orchestra – Robbin’s Nest (1947)
“Robbins’ Nest” and other Thornhill recordings from this period point the way to the cool-jazz movement of the 1950s, founded with Davis’ Birth Of The Cool recordings at the end of the 1940s. Many of the tunes were recorded by a circle of musicians that included former members of the Thornhill orchestra.

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