Claude Thornhill & Gently Falling Snow

When it comes to being put in the mood for listening to certain music, I’m ridiculously suggestible. A kettle whistling in the kitchen will make me think of “Five O’Clock Whistle” and the next thing I know, I’m happily listening to Ivie Anderson with the 1940 Duke Ellington band while the kettle boils over, splashing hot water all over the stove. Believe me, it could be worse….. much, much worse. Sometimes the trigger can be more abstract and subliminal, as was the case this past Sunday evening.

I’m a bachelor for the next few weeks, as my wife Anna has gone to Vancouver Island to visit her sister and help her recover from upcoming surgery. My old friends Susan and Bob Allair took pity on my sudden lowly status as a “wretched outcast” and invited me to their house on Sunday night for dinner. As always, the food and drink were excellent, as was the company, conversation and music. We started out by listening to jazz on satellite radio, later switching to an R & B trip down memory lane. It was a mild and still night, so I decided to walk home, figuring the forty-minute trudge would help me work off the meal. It began to snow ever so slightly as I neared home and, as I’d also been listening to some Lee Konitz records that afternoon, I immediately thought of Claude Thornhill and his wonderful, unique band of the 1940s.

At ninrteen, Konitz first made his mark playing alto in Thornhill’s 1947 band and he’s never been out of the jazz vanguard since. That I’d been listening to Lee that very day was just a coincidence though, it was the faint softness of the snow that brought Thornhill to mind. The quiet of gently falling snow always makes me think of him – his haunting and dreamy “Snowfall” was the band’s theme song and for a while he had a vocal group known as “The Snowflakes”. And there never was a band that played softer or with such undulating texture and veiled nuance. Its muted, intimate voicings emanated like a vapor, swaddling the listener in brocade curtains or a thick, puffy snowdrift, the sound “hung in the air like a cloud” as Gil Evans put it. I knew as soon as I got home I would have to listen to some of Thornhill’s records. It had been years since I’d done so, but like a man hypnotized, I had little choice in the matter.

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From a shelf I plucked a couple of CDs which compile most of the arrangements Gil Evans wrote for the band, plus a few by Thornhill, Bill Borden, Gerry Mulligan, Rusty Dedrick and others. These discs are called “The Real Birth of the Cool”, a pointed reference to the now-acknowledged fact that Thornhill’s band, especially the 1947 one, was the incubator of the more celebrated 1948-50 nonet led by Miles Davis, whose scant recordings became known as “The Birth of the Cool”. The nonet came out of discussions in a kind of salon held in Gil Evans’ apartment between musicians such as Davis, Evans, Konitz, Mulligan, Johnny Carisi and John Lewis. Davis had in mind a group that could achieve the impressionistic colours of Thornhill’s band, but with a reduced and more affordable number of players, finally settling on the minimum requisite of nine – his trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, Konitz’s alto saxophone, Mulligan’s baritone saxophone and a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.

Although it played in many of the same venues as other bands of the day, and for the same purposes – mainly dancing – Thornhill’s band was much more of an orchestra than a dance- or swing-band, it pleased the ears more than the feet. It became known for its slow, romantic ballads, but could also swing and jump when it wanted to. It achieved some success and popularity in the ’40s, but because many of the tempos it played were either too slow – or later, too fast – for dancing, its standing with the general public was never as high as it was with musicians, who adored the band and its imaginative scores. Thelonious Monk said it was “the only really good big band I’ve ever heard”, somewhat surprising considering his deep admiration of Duke Ellington. Davis and other young modernists clearly agreed, the Thornhill band was years ahead of its time and would directly feed the best of the cool jazz that would follow.

Really, there were two Thornhill bands, the pre-war one of 1940-42, and the post-war one from 1946 on. When America fully entered the war, Thornhill enlisted in the Navy in late 1942, serving for three years mostly in a musical capacity with Artie Shaw’s Service band and later organizing bands in the occupied Pacific, working closely with Admirals Nimitz and Halsey. He was discharged in 1946 and reorganized his band, with most of the pre-war sidemen returning. Evans wrote the bulk of the arrangements for both bands, his orchestrating style (which would become so celebrated in his later work with Davis) already fully formed and daringly original, though subtle. With its use of at least one French horn and much woodwind-doubling, the early band was already distinctive, but, superficially at least, it remained closer to the more commercial sounds and practices of other bands, using solo singers and The Snowflakes vocal group.

Here are a couple of fine examples of the earlier band, beginning with “Autumn Nocturne” from 1941, with Irving Fazola featured on clarinet along with the leader’s filigree piano work throughout. As far as I can tell, this is not arranged by Gil Evans, but maybe by Thornhill himself or Bill Borden.

And “There’s A Small Hotel” from 1942, arranged by Evans and featuring The Snowflakes – Lillian Lane, Martha Wayne, Terry Allen and Buddy Stewart:

The Snowflakes melted away during the war, but Gene Williams, Buddy Hughes and Fran Warren sang with the band individually from 1946-48. Warren in particular made an impression, recording many numbers with Thornhill, including “I Get the Blues When It Rains”, “I Remember Mama”, “A Sunday Kind Of Love” and others. Since his great success arranging “Loch Lomond” and “Annie Laurie” for Maxine Sullivan in the late-’30s, Thornhill had a strong affinity for good singers and Fran Warren’s lilting, warm voice suited the band and its charts perfectly. Here she is from 1947, singing the beautiful but little-known “Just About This Time Last Night”, arranged by Bill Borden.

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The later band was bigger and more adventuresome, its expanded instrumentation offering Evans a broader palette which he knew exactly how to use. Oddly, although it was larger and sometimes played faster tempos, the later band was also often quieter, perhaps because the musicians had matured and learned to adjust more to the sensitive dynamics the arrangements called for. The classic 1947 line-up featured eight brass: three trumpets, two trombones, two French horns and a tuba. Other bands had as many brass or more, but almost always used only trumpets and trombones, not achieving the same range or depth of sound. And the reed section was expanded from five to seven members, all of them playing clarinet or flute as well as saxophone. It was not at all unusual to hear the reed section feature six clarinets and a bass clarinet, or five clarinets, lead alto and a flute, or many other combinations that other bands and arrangers never dreamed of. In fact, Whitney Balliett titled his profile of Thornhill, “Bright Unison Clarinets”. And Thornhill drilled his musicians to play softly and in tune with no vibrato, which greatly enhanced the effect of Evans’ scores, allowing them to achieve the magic trick of sounding both dense and light all at once, both dark and luminous.

The later repertoire was also bolder and wider-ranging, reflecting both classical music and the newer sounds of bebop, along with standard songs of the day. Thornhill’s band recorded beautiful arrangements by Evans of excerpts from classical pieces, such as Christian Sinding’s mini piano concerto “Rustle of Spring”, the “Arab Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and “The Old Castle” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. And, though he was mostly a product of the Swing Era, Thornhill showed his progressive side by endorsing arrangements by Evans of bebop tunes such as “Anthroplogy”, “Yardbird Suite” and “Donna Lee”. Here is a 1947 performance of “Anthropology”. Note the startling, almost chorale-like intro and first chorus by Thornhill and the slight and ingenious displacements used by Evans on the second eight bars of the melody. Later solos are by Tak Tavorkian on trombone, Mickey Folus on tenor, Lee Konitz on alto and Barry Galbraith on guitar.

My favourite track by the band is below, a chart by Evans of “Robbin’s Nest” from October of 1947. I love everything about it, the simple yet arresting intro, Thornhill’s lovely statement of the melody, the relaxed Count Basie feel of the rhythm, Danny Polo’s eloquent paraphrasing of the melody on clarinet, the fleet bebop lines and the ending, which is a variant of the intro. It combines swing and bebop effortlessly while avoiding big-band clichés and above all it’s so quiet, despite all the fast, intricate work:

Claude Thornhill was a good-humoured, but very shy and retiring man who cared more about music than he did the music business. He was also gently eccentric, which probably stood him in good stead while leading his innovative band. Here is an example of his offbeat musical personality, by turns whimsical and serious. It’s a 1946 recording of his composition “Portrait Of A Guinea Farm”, arranged by Evans. It shows the virtuosity of Thornhill and the ensemble and, to be sure, it was not the kind of thing many bands were doing at the time:

Thornhill’s band stressed ensemble playing first and foremost, solos were brief and secondary. His piano was often featured and before Lee Konitz, the band didn’t really have an outstanding saxophone soloist. They did have two great clarinet soloists however – the New Orleans-born Irving Fazola in the 1941 band, replaced by Danny Polo from 1942 on. Polo was a brilliant clarinetist from Chicago who worked effectively in both traditional and modern settings; he and Thornhill were close musical associates dating back to their youth, when they formed a duo. He joined Thornhill’s band in 1942 and again in 1946-47. While with Thornhill he became seriously ill, dying suddenly in July of 1949 at the age of 47. Polo was fondly remembered and greatly admired by Thornhill, the modernists in his band, and by Miles Davis. His death was a real loss.

Along with their music and recordings, the legacy great bandleaders leave behind also consists of the young talent they discover, nurture and send forth. Thornhill’s record in this regard is enviable, beginning first and foremost with Gil Evans. Evans was quite young and a clearly gifted but mostly unknown quantity in 1941 when Thornhill turned the arranging reins over to him, trusting his talent. The band was like a laboratory for Evans and his brilliant orchestrating for it made his name.

Then there was Lee Konitz and along with him, other young musicians who first made their mark in Thornhill’s band. Negotiating the difficult charts that Evans challenged them with was a feather in their caps and many of them went on to great success in other musical settings. Among the brass players was Red Rodney, who was the main trumpet soloist in the 1947 band and went on to play with Charlie Parker. Louis Mucci handled most of the lead trumpet work both before and after the war. His great dynamic control, flexibility and pure, dense sound made him one of Gil Evans’ favourite trumpet players, Mucci later turned up on all kinds of Evans-led sessions. Sandy Siegelstein was most often one of the French horns and he would go on to play in the Davis nonet and do a lot of studio work around New York. And above all (or rather, below all), Bill Barber, whose marvelously soft and mobile tuba playing would make him a perennial favourite of Evans and many other arrangers for years. Gerry Mulligan began contributing arrangements and played baritone and clarinet with the band briefly in 1948, which only added to his growing reputation.

Guitarist Barry Galbraith was a constant in the band almost from the very beginning, contributing supple rhythm work, while also soloing and handling with ease any of the linear passages Evans wrote for him. Of course Galbraith would go on to become the first-call studio guitarist in New York during the ’50s and early’60s, renowned for his sight-reading and versatility. The band had a number of great drummers in the early going – veterans Dave Tough, Nick Fatool and the younger Irv Cottler, who would be Frank Sinatra’s drummer for so many years. The 1947 rhythm section was its best though, a classic combination of Thornhill and Galbraith with the fleet, sensitive drumming of Billy Exiner (who would be a major inspiration to Mel Lewis), and the springy, light-toned bassist Joe Shulman, who would go on to play with the Davis nonet and with Lester Young. They combined the buoyant, even four of Count Basie’s rhythm section with a lighter, more forward-looking bebop approach.

Several times in print Lee Konitz has related a story about the relaxing effect of this rhythm section and his early use of marijuana. One night on a break, he and Mulligan got quite high smoking pot and when they returned to the bandstand, Konitz was still stoned and had a solo on the first number. He waddled over to the microphone to take his sixteen bars but when he got there, he noticed the nice, padding Basie four that Galbraith, Shulman and Exiner were laying down and the cloudy solo background Evans had written. He just stood there transfixed with his eyes closed, kind of digging the grooviness of it all, then waddled back to his seat. When he sat down he realized he hadn’t played anything at all, bupkus. Knowing Lee slightly as I do, I can almost hear him saying it was one of the best solos he ever played, because it had no bad notes in it – in fact it had no notes at all, so it was perfect.

Thornhill’s band fell apart after 1948, for a number of reasons. There was never quite enough money and he was known for not paying very well, so some guys took better offers. The big-band business started to go downhill generally and several others disbanded, Polo’s sudden illness was also a blow.  And some key members – Evans, Konitz, Mulligan, Siegelstein, Barber and Shulman – left for the Davis nonet and other work. Thornhill always drank a fair bit and he drank more in the 1950s and early-’60s, as he tried to keep his name and music alive by becoming a sort of society dance-band leader. He took a greatly reduced band out on the road, playing the old scores with just two trumpets, a trombone, a couple of reeds and the obligatory French horn, the music sounding tattered and thin. It was sad, but Mike Zwerin, who played trombone in some of these bands, wrote that Thornhill kept his dignity intact, marveling at the control this must have taken on his part. In the mid-’60s he began rehearsing a new big band with some hope, but died suddenly in 1965. He was only 56 and his new band was to open in Atlantic City the night after he died. After Thornhill’s death, Duke Ellington made this comment: “I wonder if the world will ever know how much it had in this beautiful man”.

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His career and music may have met with a sad end, but hearing the records again brought both to life, I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit with Thornill and his band. I listened to many of the performances I’ve shared here, along with some others – the complex charts of the Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky pieces and right off the bat, a beautiful reading of the Spanish folk song “La Paloma”, scored by Evans as a showcase for Thornhill’s gleaming piano work. Earlier I mentioned how sonically suggestible I am, and I’m also very susceptible to hearing music in terms of painting. This is probably because my father was a very dedicated and talented amateur painter; I watched him paint for hours on end as a child and the house was full of his art books. Listening to the band play Evans’ luxurious arrangements, I couldn’t help but see the impossibly light, phosphorescent rose-yellow clouds of Turner, which look as though they were painted with coloured steam. The swirling, dancing deep blues, greens and purples of Monet’s water-lilies, and the dappled, fluffy twilight of his paintings of the Thames and the Parliament buildings. I thought how wonderful it would have been to hear this band live, or to have played in it.

It’s funny, but listening to this music again for the first time in a while, I noticed little things I hadn’t before, like how many clarinets were used and how low they often played. And how Galbraith’s feathery-light rhythm guitar buoyed the band from underneath like a cushion of air. Mostly what I noticed for the first time though was Thornhill’s lacy piano playing, it astonished me, on “La Paloma” and elsewhere. He was an extraordinary player, with the technique of a concert pianist, a crystalline touch and a sound that crackled and glimmered. His sound was much more a part of the band than I’d previously noticed, it melted in and out of the textures and, even when he wasn’t featured playing the melody, his swift, rippling runs darted across the background like flashing jewelry. Gil Evans went on record to say that Thornhill’s touch and time were something else, and that he got the best piano sound of anyone he ever heard. Musicians in the band told stories of how Thornhill would arrive at some dance-hall they were playing and find a beat-up, out-of-tune piano. Using his marvelous ear and a tuning hammer, he’d touch it up as best he could and by avoiding the rougher spots and using his delicate touch, he’d make it sound beautiful on the gig.

My sudden admiration of his piano playing led me to realize that Thornhill deserved more credit for the musical success of his band than he has received, both back then and now. Gil Evans has always reaped a great deal of the credit because of his brilliant arranging and rightly so, but Thornhill deserves more recognition and I think Evans would be the first to agree. Thornhill was a superlative musician and a successful arranger dating back to the 1930s and after all, it was he who started the band, conceived of its overall direction and selected the players, it was his name on the music stands. It was his great ear and musicianship that gently guided the musicians on matters of pitch, dynamics and playing without vibrato. And, as great as Gil Evans was, it was Thornhill who had the nerve and insight to grant him so much creative latitude, not many bandleaders would have done so. Claude Thornhill was a reluctant, almost accidental innovator – the more he strove for commercial success, the more artistic his band became, until it grew too artistic to survive. In the end, he alone paid the price for this, while his sidemen and Evans reaped the benefits and flourished.

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It’s said that all things are connected and I’ve found that as I’ve grown older and acquired more memory and experience, this has become truer and truer. Here I was, alone in the house, yet not alone. I had a glass of red wine and this gently wondrous band to keep me company, to make me snug and stir my thoughts, which now amounted to a reverie about the link between the faintly falling snow and the sound of this evocative music hanging in the air, light and pure as a snowflake. This is the music of memory and reflection, of surrender and romance, of missing departed friends and those who are only absent for a while, like my dear Anna. I felt myself getting sleepy, not because Thornhill’s music is soporific – far from it – but because it brought such satisfaction and a dreamy feeling of peace and stillness.

The last thing I listened to that night was a 1947 version of “Snowfall”, which doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube. Here is the original version from 1941, which is not quite as soft or undulating as the later one, but will do nicely:

This sent me off to bed and, as I was drifting off to sleep, a final connection between snowfall, Claude Thornhill, peace and memory passed dimly across my mind: perhaps my favourite passage in all of literature, the final paragraph from James Joyce’s story “The Dead”. I’ve read it so often, I almost know it by heart:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to begin his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, further westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

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And so I slept the deep and dreamless, but luckily awoke the next morning alive and feeling refreshed, with a desire to share this listening odyssey. I hope it’s been enjoyable, along with any listening adventures you may discover on your own.

© 2015 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “Claude Thornhill & Gently Falling Snow

  1. Beautiful job, Steve. I confess to knowing very little about Thornhill before reading your piece. I will be paying more attention from now on!

    Bob

  2. You’re right about Thornhill’s lovely, lacey playing with his own orchestra, but his earliest work shows he could be a bit of a stomper too. He’s found in very early Benny Goodman bands, Glenn Miller’s, the high-stomping Louis Prima small groups of the ’30s, with Ray Noble, Bud Freeman and dozens of other placements of a top rank studio pianist of the time.

    You note he arranged and played on Maxine Sullivan’s hit “Loch Lomond”, but a few weeks later was in the studio with another pretty good singer, Billie Holiday.

    All in all, a remarkable musician, and thanks to you Steve for bringing Thornhill to wider, perhaps first-time attention..

  3. A truly beautiful appreciation of the wonderful Claude Thornhill and his orchestras, Steve. It’s about time someone honoured his memory and his accomplishments as you have done here. Not surprisingly, I guess, Thelonious Monk was one of the first musicians to note just how very special Thornhill was.

    And you know it always kills me to think that Thornhill’s original title for the gorgeously evocative Snowfall was A Fountain in Havana. Seriously!

  4. Thanks Steve…a very interesting discourse on Claude Thornhill’s band….it filled in a lot of blanks for me. Snowfall was probably the only tune I associated with him and his band I always thought of as short lived and never as “popular” as the mainstream swing bands. I can understand better now that he was a very talented musician who thought more about tonal colour than the things that made the other bands “dancebands”. Very enjoyable!!!

  5. Great piece, with too many good things to mention. Reportedly, Mulligan and Evans both wanted Danny Polo on clarinet for the Davis Nonet, but he was on the road with Thornhill and then, suddenly, gone.

    Ironically, they got their wish–sort of–almost a half-century later when Mulligan put together a “Rebirth of the Cool” band for touring. It became a tentet because Mulligan added either Kenny Soderblom or Mark Lopeman on tenor and clarinet. (And Rob McConnell played valve trombone.)

  6. Here’s Mulligan’s “Rebirth of the Cool” band in 1992, playing Gil Evans’s classic Nonet chart on “Moon Dreams.” It’s actually 11 pieces: personnel as listed on the video, plus Bill Barber on tuba.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKIvIX-ZeUc

    BTW, Thornhill’s use of the clarinet was admired by Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer (both of whom played with the band), and adopted by them in 1960 when they started the Concert Jazz Band. The CJB’s lead reed book was essentially a clarinet book (for Gene Quill), with some alto saxophone parts added.

  7. Two of your themes fall together beautifully, Steve. Gil Evans’s “La Nevada” on Out of the Cool is a contrafact, no, a scrapple, of Thornhill’s “Snowfall” (and a Spanish translation of its title). Both breathtaking.

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