Although you seldom see much about the big band era that flourished before and during World War II, many of the names are still familiar. Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman have names that will ring the proverbial bell with most of us, but what about Chick Webb, Larry Clinton, or Claude Thornhill? As unfamiliar as those and countless other names might seem to music lovers today, many were huge stars at one time and the music was often first-class too.
It might sound strange now, but in the 1930s and 1940s the big bands had just as many avid young fans as rock music does today — and just as many stars too. The bandleaders and their featured performers all had enthusiastic fans who followed their performances in live shows, on records, on the radio, and in short musical films that often showed up in neighborhood theaters. Those films could be considered the forerunner to MTV and music videos, and even though the performers might seem quaint and hokey to us now, they were very popular at that time. (See example at bottom.)
Claude Thornhill would have been 100 years old this month (he died in 1965) so he might be a good choice to spotlight. Born and raised in small-town Indiana, Claude was introduced to music via piano lessons from his mother, Maude. The Claude and Maude team must have been a good one, because the young man began appearing in musical groups in area clubs while still attending high school.
After reaching adulthood, Claude went for the big time. By then he’d added composing and arranging to his keyboard talents, allowing him to work his way into some of the top big bands of the 1930s, including those of Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman.
As was the case with many talented musicians in those days, he eventually formed his own band and enjoyed success for a number of years. It was during this period that one of his compositions, the lush and melodic “Snowfall,” became his theme song and his biggest hit. But Claude had to dissolve his band when he entered the service during World War II and even though he revived it in later years, by then the age of the big bands was winding down. Still, Claude continued to be one of the most important influences in the burgeoning modern jazz genre, and should not be forgotten.