“Snowfall” (1941) Claude Thornhill


Composed and arranged by Claude Thornhill.

Recorded for Columbia by Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra on May 21, 1941 in New York.

Claude Thornhill, piano, directing: Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Lyle F. “Rusty” Dedrick, Bob Sprentall, trumpets; Tasso Harris and Bob Jenney, trombones; Irving H. “Fazola” Prestopnik, Dale Brown, Ted Goddard, George Paulsen, John Nelson, Hammond Russom, clarinets and saxophones; Alan Hanlon, guitar; Harvey Sell, bass; Gene Leman, drums.

The story:

Pianist/arranger Claude Thornhill (1909-1965), (shown at right in 1940), led some of the most exquisite bands of the swing era. His musical ideas were unconventional when compared with what almost all other swing era bands did. From his earliest time as a bandleader (1940), he built his band around a six-man reed section that very often played clarinets. That section is led in this classic recording by Irving Fazola, who was also a fine jazz soloist. His five man brass section sounded larger than it was due to the presence of the extraordinary lead trumpeter Conrad Gozzo, (shown at left) whose power, range and brilliant sound could be heard no matter what else was going on in the Thornhill ensemble. Unlike almost all other swing era bands, Thornhill eschewed riffing, and the antiphonal use of instruments. Instead, he used the clarinets, brass, and his elegant piano playing as the often discrete building blocks of his music, and frequently employed them in subtle, contrasting ways.

Thornhill’s piano was a central feature in his band’s music, but he played it so tastefully and integrated it so cleverly into what his band was playing that it rarely stood out as a solo instrument. Although he had extensive technique at the keyboard, he never used it in a gaudy, exhibitionistic way. Instead, he focused on touch and tone. Here are his thoughts on that: “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 these little, shall I say, niceties.” (1)  Claude Thornhill’s piano playing and the music his bands played was always oriented in the direction of “more and better musical effects.”

The first Thornhill band (shown in 1940 at right outside the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California), broke-in in southern California in the summer of 1940. From then until well into 1941, the band had only modest success because, despite Claude’s own substantial and high-level professional experience, and the high quality of the music he and his band produced. This was because the Thornhill name was not then recognizable in the dance band business. The Thornhill band also suffered a number of setbacks in its first year, including long engagements being suddenly shortened, a ballroom fire, and other debacles. But Claude had an ace in the hole. He was long-time friends with Glenn Miller, and during this same time, Miller’s success as a bandleader was skyrocketing. Although the exact financial relationship between Miller and Thornhill has never been explained in detail, (indeed much of Thornhill’s career remains shrouded in uncertainty), it appears that Miller probably loaned money to Thornhill to keep his band operating during its early existence, and definitely was involved in the management of the Thornhill band, at least by 1941. These factors undoubtedly led to the Thornhill band being booked into Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, with a two-month engagement there, including many radio broadcasts, starting on March 20, 1941. It was at this same venue two years earlier that Miller had taken his first giant step toward success. The Thornhill name was built substantially by its many broadcasts from Glen Island Casino. It was at the end of this engagement, that the Thornhill band recorded “Snowfall.”

The music:

Despite assertions to the contrary, Claude Thornhill not was a conservatory trained musician.  He worked his way through a number of dance bands in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was this experience that gave him a feeling for jazz. His year-long association with the radio concert orchestra led by Andre’ Koztelanetz (1936-1937) as an arranger/orchestrator created in him an awareness of blends of musical instruments and musical sonorities that were quite outside the norm of swing era dance bands. The aesthetic lessons he learned with Koztelanetz informed his music when he led his own band. Though he was never a jazz pianist per se, he completely understood what jazz was, and that understanding undergirded his arranging and his accompaniment for jazz soloists.

His composition/theme song “Snowfall” was actually written “…as a part of a suite Claude wrote in the 1930s that was called Fountain in Havana,” recalled one of Thornhill’s early musical associates, arranger Bill Borden. “When we brought the band into Balboa, California in 1940, we had to have a theme (song), and we picked that. We couldn’t call it Fountain in Havana. We (cast about a great deal). We considered “Waterfall,” but finally settled on “Snowfall.” (2) (The snowfall scene at left is a photo of my back yard taken in February of 2016.)

“Snowfall” in many ways is a prototype of Thornhill’s music. It begins with the brass quintet playing a sustained chord softly into their metal derby mutes while the guitar, bass and drums establish a background ostinato(3) figure, while Thornhill sprinkles glistening piano notes over this lush sonic mix. (At right in 1941, L-R: Ted Goddard, Bob Jenney, Irving Fazola, Rusty Dedrick, Thornhill.)Then the six clarinets appear to set forth the lovely main melody of “Snowfall,” supported by the continuing ostinato for eight bars. (Note: the minimal use of vibrato by the instrumentalists. This was very unusual for a dance band in 1941.) Thornhill follows, playing the melody with elegant simplicity as the ostinato continues.

The powerful open brass then suddenly appear playing the secondary theme, creating a dynamic contrast. Notice how subtly Thornhill (as arranger) underpins the brass with the clarinets. Thornhill (the pianist) then returns to play both melodic themes, one after the other, the first over the returned ostinato, the second against softly played tom-toms and gently muted brass, with one or two of the saxophonists playing a baritone sax and/or a bass clarinet to add sonority and depth to the two trombones. Thornhill reprises his simple piano lines against the ostinato, which leads to the return of the clarinets. The clarinets then play sustained tones, against which richly harmonized muted brass blend perfectly. Thornhill provides the ending with a soft piano run.(At left: Claude Thornhill–in dark suit–poses with L-R: trombonist Bob Jenney, trumpeters Conrad Gozzo and Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick – 1941.)

Claude Thornhill’s gentle, evocative “Snowfall” is a perfectly constructed composition/arrangement that contains varied and often contrasting instrumental deployments, bound together by his warmly delicate piano playing.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) The Big Bands, by George T. Simon, (1967), 434.

(2) The Swing Era 1940-1941 (1970), 60.

(3) Ostinato is Italian for “obstinate.” In music it denotes a recurring musical phrase or rhythm.

Here is a link to some lovely music created by Claude Thornhill and his musical collaborator Gil Evans: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/06/the-happy-stranger-1947-claude-thornhill-dutch-jazz-orchestra-2006/

Here is another link, this time to some unusual Thornhill music in a quite different mood: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/12/01/portrait-of-a-guinea-farm-1941-claude-thornhill/

Here is some more Gil Evand music played by the Thornhill band: https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/05/03/arab-dance-1946-and-la-paloma-1947-claude-thornhill-and-gil-evans/

And here is another great Thornhill performance: https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/10/15/autumn-nocturne-1941-claude-thornhill-1970-billy-may-and-the-swing-era-orchestra-1941-charlie-spivak/

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