“Portrait of a Guinea Farm” (1941) Claude Thornhill

“Portrait of a Guinea Farm”

Composed and arranged by Claude Thornhill.

Recorded by Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra for Okeh/Columbia in New York on April 16, 1941.

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 Russem, clarinets and saxophones; Chuck Robinson, guitar; Harvey Sell, bass; Gene Leman, drums.

The story: I have previously posted Claude Thornhill’s lovely theme song “Snowfall” here at swingandbeyond.com I have placed a link to that post at the bottom of this post. Whereas “Snowfall” is an ethereal composition, “Portrait of a Guinea Farm” is quite the opposite. It is earthy and rambunctious. Some have called it “far out.”

Despite having a career as a bandleader that eventually stretched (with interruptions) over twenty-five years, much of what Claude Thornhill (1909-1965) did and why he did it remains shrouded in mystery. Some time ago, I did some digging into Thornhill’s life and career, and thought I had located what might perhaps turn out to be the mother-lode of information about him. I discovered that Drury University in Springfield, Missouri held a large cache of Thornhill materials. I contacted a librarian at Drury, and asked him what Thornhill materials were there. I was happy to learn that much of the music Thornhill used is housed there. But I was disappointed to learn that none of Thornhill’s personal papers or other personal effects were there. Other similar efforts to find information about Claude Thornhill ended, ultimately, without success. (Above left: Claude Thornhill in August of 1940.)

A brief biographical essay on Claude Thornhill appears at my friend Christopher Popa’s website here: http://www.bigbandlibrary.com/claudethornhill.html  It contains many recollections of trumpeter Lyle “Rusty” Dedrick, who played with the Thronhill band for a substantial period of time. Dedrick alludes to Thornhill’s personality, and the various emotional issues he had. What is not mentioned is that Thornhill was also an alcoholic. All of these facts are relevant to trying to understand Claude Thornhill as a person. A more extensive article about Thornhill was included in the Time-Life Swing Era 1942-1944 volume.(1) It was written by jazz historian Ira Gitler. It contains several more recollections about Thornhill, made mostly by musicians who worked with him over the years, as well as Mr. Gitler’s judicious opinions. But aside from these, there is little publicly available information about Thornhill. So despite his successful career as an innovative musician, Thornhill remains largely a cypher.

I hope that someone somewhere will write a well-researched, scholarly biography of Claude Thornhill. He was a major figure of the swing era.

I want to touch upon several issues involving Claude Thornhill that have over the decades perhaps been misunderstood. The first of these is the assertion that he studied music at a conservatory. That is not the case. The truth is that Claude’s mother, who was a church organist and choir director in his home town of Terre Haute, Indiana, started him on piano lessons when he was four. He continued those lessons for the next ten years. By the time he was twelve, he was working at small musical jobs and being paid. By the time he finished high school, he was a professional musician whose playing was of a high order.

Thornhill then began playing in dance bands, the most notable being Austin Wylie’s in Cleveland, where he met another budding musician, Artie Shaw. They formed a friendship that survived, albeit with many interruptions (and stresses and strains), for the rest of Thornhill’s life. In 1931, Thornhill moved to Manhattan, where he started to work as a pianist and arranger for many bands over the next several years. These included: Paul Whiteman, Freddy Martin, Hal Kemp, Johnny Green, Leo Reisman, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Ray Noble and Andre’ Kostelanetz. (Shown above left.) With Noble, Thornhill played piano and arranged, and perhaps more importantly made friends with fellow Noble sidemen Glenn Miller, Bud Freeman, George Van Eps and Charlie Spivak. These associations (especially the one with Miller) would be important to Thornhill’s developing musical career in the late 1930s, and after. With Kostelantez, who had his own sponsored radio program on CBS, Thornhill was exposed to an orchestra that contained 45 or more musicians, and played a repertoire that was more oriented to legitimate concert music and semi-classics than it was to pop music and jazz. All of the musical experience Thornhill had accrued before Kostelanetz was really preparation for the high-level orchestration and arranging he was to do with that orchestra. The technical and aesthetic lessons he learned with Kostelanetz would imprint on him an approach to dance music that was quite different from the swing era norm.

After Thornhill left Koztelanetz, he free-lanced in New York for a period of time, and then was called to Hollywood in 1938 to arrange for singer Skinnay Ennis’s band, which was then being featured on comedian Bob Hope’s NBC network radio show. The Ennis band was really a band that had been organized and led by pianist/arranger Gil Evans. That band was effectively taken over by Ennis for use on the Hope radio show. But Evans remained its de facto leader and musical director. When the arranging demands for Ennis became too great for Evans to handle alone, Thornhill was brought in, along with arranger John Scott Trotter. (Trotter had worked with Ennis in the Hal Kemp band.) (Above right: L-R: Claude Thornhill, John Scott Trotter and Skinnay Ennis – Hollywood – 1939.) 

The meeting of Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans was the beginning of a musical association between the two men that would last throughout the 1940s, and produce a substantial body of remarkable music for Claude Thornhill’s bands. After leaving Thornhill’s employ, Gil Evans would form a musical association with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis that produced yet another body of remarkable music. Both Evans and Davis acknowledged the musical debts they had to Claude Thornhill.

There are a number of posts here at swingandbeyond.com dedicated to the extraordinarily creative musical relationship between Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans. See links below.

The music:

In many ways, “Portrait of a Guinea Farm” is an outlier when compared with Claude Thornhill’s entire musical ouevre. Much of Thornhill’s music is soft and slow, great for dreaming or dancing. But not this piece! It starts at a brisk tempo, with a gong crash, massed clarinets,(2) muted brass and chugging rhythm. Soon the mutes are removed from the brass instruments, and one hears the resplendent sound of Conrad Gozzo’s lead trumpet, especially in the brass explosions Thornhill has placed strategically throughout this arrangement. Thornhill’s agile piano weaves in and out of the gusts of sound from the ensemble. The piece ends as it began, except here Thornhill unwinds the tempo with deft and provocative descending piano chords, and a gently struck gong. (Above left: Conrad Gozzo .)

I have been asked what the source or meaning of the title “Portrait of a Guinea Farm” is. I will state without hesitation that I don’t know. Like much about Claude Thornhill, it remains a mystery. I suspect however that it emanated from the highly developed sense of the absurd that Claude Thornhill had, in addition to his sense of humor.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) The Swing Era 1942-1944, Time-Life Books (1971).

(2) Thornhill’s use of six clarinets as an orchestral texture is not only musically stunning, it is unique. I know of no other dance or jazz orchestra to incorporate this musical device, and indeed know of no western concert music to employ it.

Here is a link to Claude Thornhill’s beautiful theme song “Snowfall:”


Here is a link to another lovely Thornhill arrangement and performance:


And here are links to some of the great performances by the Thornhill orchestra of the arrangements of Gil Evans:



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