By Mark Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — The rock ’n’ roll generation — my generation — knows little, if anything, about Claude Thornhill.
His musical heyday unfolded before most of us were born.
But as the 100th anniversary of Thornhill’s birth approaches, those of us of younger vintages should peek at his legacy. To put it in a baby boomer’s perspective, imagine if John Fogerty grew up in Terre Haute, as Thornhill did. Fogerty, of course, is a master musician, songwriter and arranger, and the creative genius behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, labeled by Rolling Stone as the best band in America in 1969.
That was Claude Thornhill in the 1940s. (Minus Fogerty’s plaid shirts, moppy hair, amplification and Cajun growl.) He created brilliant, edgy, hip sounds as a pianist and big band leader. Down Beat magazine branded his Claude Thornhill Orchestra the “best big band of 1941.”
And he was a Hautean.
I phoned his former trumpeter Tuesday, and asked him to describe Thornhill’s talent. Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick joined his band in ’41 and then rejoined it in 1946 after both he and Thornhill served in the military during World War II. Now 91 and living in Summitville, N.Y., Dedrick responded by dropping a name even us fortysomethings would recognize.
“I’ll quote Duke Ellington, and what he said way back then was that Claude’s band was the only one that was doing something different from the norm,” Dedrick said.
How cool is that? Sir Duke saw Claude Thornhill — born on Aug. 10, 1909, in Terre Haute, the son of a coal miner and a church organist — as an innovator.
That’s why folks in Thornhill’s home neighborhood of 12 Points have orchestrated a celebration on his centennial birthday. Claude Thornhill Day on Monday, Aug. 10, will feature a declaration by Mayor Duke Bennett, and an evening performance of his songs by The Fabulous Forties Big Band at 7 o’clock in Harmony Hall at 1257 Lafayette Ave. With tickets priced at an affordable $10 each, the event will serve as a fundraiser for the 12 Points Greater Northside Association, a nonprofit neighborhood group supporting that historic Terre Haute district.
It also will serve as a teachable moment, in the parlance of President Obama.
“He’s the most unknown famous guy from Terre Haute,” said Rich Curtis, president of the 12 Points association. “People need to know about him. He’s part of our legacy.”
Indeed, Thornhill left a lasting impression on music before he died in 1965. His death in Atlantic City, from a heart attack at just 56 years old, came just days after his band played a show at the Steel Pier in that New Jersey city. Though the big-band era had long since been replaced by rock ’n’ roll — a genre Thornhill avoided — the orchestra’s Steel Pier concert was a sellout.
His acclaim was even greater inside musicians’ inner circle. Thornhill worked as an arranger and pianist for a who’s who of big bands, jazz, swing and bebop — Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Andre Kostelanetz, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Tony Bennett. He arranged, directed and played piano on the 1937 hit “Loch Lomond” (with the line “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road”) by Maxine Sullivan, a young singer he discovered. As a band leader, Thornhill used instruments rarely seen in jazz and swing orchestras.
“He was the first band to utilize French horns,” Dedrick said. He also used tubas, and flanked them all with a large contingent of clarinets. He recruited a corps of high-caliber musicians, including Conrad Gozzo, who Dedrick called “the greatest jazz trumpeter ever.”
Thornhill blended his willingness to experiment with a delicate ear for perfection in the arrangements and performances. His own piano work could easily roll from quiet elegance to rambunctious boogie-woogie. On stage, he was classy but subdued, hardly as flamboyant as famed band leaders of the day.
“He was an innovator. He was that type of personality, too — odd, I’d say, different from the norm,” Dedrick recalled, “and in a good way.”
For folks unfamiliar with Thornhill’s sound, it might be best to work your way back to him. His signature song, “Snowfall,” is the perfect vehicle for that musical time travel. Go to YouTube.com and listen to the various recordings of that tune, composed by Thornhill, in reverse chronological order. Start with the Manhattan Transfer’s rendition, then Tony Bennett’s version from his classic 1968 Christmas album, “Snowfall,” and then Henry Mancini’s take, and finally Thornhill’s original recording.
On it, Thornhill leads the understated orchestration with piano as gentle as, well, snowfall. It is literally beautiful.
In a quotation listed by the Web site bigbandlibrary.com, Thornhill described the ambition behind his meticulous, odd choices of instruments, genres and musicians. “My intention was to create something new and arresting, an orchestra different from others on the scene,” he said.
That’s an attitude my generation should appreciate.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.