Though his career as an orchestra leader was relatively limited, pianist Claude Thornhill left a huge legacy. He is often credited as the progenitor of cool jazz. His recordings, featuring innovative arrangements and unusual instrumentation, influenced and impressed many of the post-big band greats, especially Miles Davis. Thornhill's orchestra included arranger Gil Evans and musician Lee Konitz, who also became instrumental in Davis' sound.
Thornhill studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. His first professional job was with the Cleveland-based band led by Austin Wylie, where he joined clarinetist and close friend Artie Shaw. Both left Wylie for Irving Aaronson's Commanders in 1929 and, after touring the country, settled in New York, where they worked as studio musicians.
Thornhill quickly earned a good reputation and began to work with big name bands, including those of Benny Goodman, Russ Morgan, Paul Whiteman, Meyer Davis, Hal Kemp, Freddie Martin and Andre Kostelanetz. In 1934 he was asked to join Ray Noble's new American orchestra, which was being organized by his friend, Glenn Miller. After two years with Noble he moved to the West Coast, where he served as the musical arranger for the Skinnay Ennis Orchestra on the Bob Hope radio show. During this period Thornhill also worked with singer Maxine Sullivan, making her famous with the tunes ''Loch Lomond'' and ''Gone with the Wind.''
In early 1940 Thornhill formed his own orchestra, which subbed for Miller's orchestra at the Pennsylvania Hotel and for Sammy Kaye's group at the Commodore before taking off on a disastrous tour. Ballroom fires and dishonest promoters took their toll on the group's morale. Things quickly turned around however when they were booked into the Glen Island Casino during March of 1941.
Response to Thornhill's progressive jazz orchestra was tremendous from serious jazz fans. At times the group's six clarinets would all play in unison, the horns would sound long tones with almost no vibrato, and Thornhill's tinkling piano would alternate between beauty and humor. The group would play sweet and very soft, only to explode the next second into a burst of sound, much to the delight of radio engineers. Singers at that time were Bob Jenney, Betty Claire and Dick Harding.
Though it was on the verge of commercial success, after the orchestra's two-month stay at the casino ended it went on a tour from which it hardly broadcast and virtually disappeared from the public eye, finally to re-emerge on the West Coast with some line-up changes. Gil Evans joined the group, as did drummer Davey Tough. Terry Allen became the new male singer.
The group was booked into the Glen Island Casino again for the summer of 1942. By then its lineup included seven clarinets, two french horns, a tuba and a vocal group, the Snowflakes (Buddy Stewart, Lillian Lane, and Martha Wayne). The band's second time at the casino was just as successful as its first, but as the year progressed the draft took its toll on the musicians. Thornhill himself finally received the call, and the group was disbanded in October.
Though he could have entered the Coast Guard as a musician with the rank of Chief Petty Officer, Thornhill instead opted for the Navy. Saying he wanted to stay away from music, he became an apprentice seaman, the lowest rank. The Navy, however, had musical plans for him anyway. He spent part of his three-year hitch playing in Artie Shaw's orchestra and the other part organizing groups on newly-occupied territories in the Pacific, where he worked closely with admirals Nimitz and Hulsey.
Discharged in 1946 Thornhill reorganized his civilian orchestra, with all but five of the original musicians returning. New vocalists were Fran Warren and Gene Williams. Though the new group was exciting it couldn't survive the downturn in the band business. It finally broke up in 1948. During the 1950s Thornhill occasionally put together new outfits but by the middle part of the decade had vanished from the public eye. He settled in New Jersey and spent the rest of his days leading small units. He was planning a comeback in 1965 when he suffered a double heart attack and passed away.