Friday, August 19, 2022

"My Year with Claude Thornhill" Richard Cox Talking To Gordon Jack

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Claude Thornhill’s 1940s big band helped shape the sound of modern jazz, and orchestral bop and ethereal ballads tinged with classical influences set the stage for masterpieces by Miles Davis and helped to inspire the West Coast or “cool jazz” movement of the 1950s. Thornhill and collaborator Gil Evans created a beautifully colored and sophisticated tapestry of music that would be referenced and known around the world.”

- Downbeat Archives

Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend in allowing JazzProfiles to re-publish his perceptive and well-researched writings on various topics about Jazz and its makers.

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he also developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.

The following article was published in the January, 2012 edition of Jazz Journal. 

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© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“Reference books and discographies often overlook some fine musicians whose appearance on the jazz scene was a brief and fleeting one. Such a player is Richard Cox who played baritone sax with Claude Thornhill’s orchestra for a year in 1952. We met in his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma where he reminisced about performing nightly with fellow-sidemen Bob Brookmeyer, Gene Quill, Brew Moore and Med Flory.

“I had just finished a small tour playing tenor with Jerry Wald’s band and was living at the President Hotel in Manhattan which is where most of the guys from the road-bands stayed. The tenor was my first love and Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Thompson, Allen Eager, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims were all my heroes. Anyway, a couple of friends came by and said Claude Thornhill was auditioning down at the Local 802 union hall because he was organizing a new band. I tried out with a lot of New York tenor players but didn’t make the cut. Luckily for me the baritone man didn’t show and Claude’s manager asked if I could play one. So the next day I went down to a music store and hired an instrument which you could do in those days.  The baritone chair was next to Claude and we started rehearsing some Mulligan charts like Poor Little Rich Girl and Jeru where the baritone occasionally descends in fifths with the piano. I was cutting it pretty well and I could tell Claude was happy because he was laughing and enjoying what I was doing. I got the job which paid $125.00 a week and I had to get a bass clarinet too because of all the doubling.  

“We started on a string of one-nighters and it was all sight-reading which didn’t give me any trouble at all. Claude was only interested in how well I read the book because the baritone was not an important solo horn in that band. In fact I can’t remember having any solos at all. Med Flory led the section, Gene Quill had the jazz alto chair, Brew Moore took care of the tenor solos and Dave Figg played second tenor. I could have asked for a solo but I didn’t dare with Med, Gene and Brew sitting there. 

“It was a joy to play Gil Evans and Mulligan arrangements and Claude had written some good stuff too. We worked full-time traveling in and out of New York, usually at the Statler Hotel in town and places like The Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. We played all down the east coast, through North Carolina and Georgia as far as Florida, usually in ballrooms, colleges and private dances. We didn’t have a bus so Claude hired four or five cars with a van which wasn’t easy but it worked out well. I drove one of the cars because I wasn’t a drinker and I usually had Sonny Rich and Chris Connor with me. She was a great singer and very easy to get along with. One night at a club in Massachusetts she had a call from Stan Kenton which is when she left the band and she was irreplaceable.” (Claude had originally hired her in 1949 to join his four-piece vocal group, The Snowflakes). “We only had one French horn (Al Antonucci) and we didn’t have a tuba at the time which was a pity because it would have been nice to have played with Bill Barber.” (Bill was a virtuoso able to play Lester Young solos which he transcribed for the tuba)  

“Claude was a shy man but he got along great with all the guys. He was very laid-back leaving everyone to their own devices but he wouldn’t tolerate any drug-taking. He never called a tune on the stand and the piano parts were not written. He would just start playing an introduction and you really had to scuffle looking through the pad of about 250 tunes to find what he was playing which made it pretty difficult if you were new.” (Gene Allen who played baritone with the band a few years earlier once told me, ‘It was a many-sided education to be in Thornhill’s band. It had an entirely different sound and tone quality to anything else at that time. His piano fill-ins gave the arrangements a certain flavour because they always related to the warp and weft of what was being played’). 

“Brew Moore was from Indianola, Mississippi and we all loved his playing but he was a real character – very hard to handle. He was juiced most of the time to the point where he could hardly function although it didn’t affect his playing at all – I’m talking alcohol here not drugs. I remember driving with him to Buffalo to play the Statler Hotel there for two weeks and on the way we stopped at a little town to have breakfast. He was being really difficult with the waitress and we just couldn’t calm him down.  Med Flory was with us and he got so fed up he went out to the car to collect Brew’s saxophone - we left him there in the restaurant with his horn while we drove off to the job. We used a local baritone player for those two weeks and I took over as the tenor soloist and had a wild time.” (Now almost a forgotten figure Brew Moore was one of the very best of the ‘Lestorians’ but his discography is a sadly slim volume. The 1949 recordings with Kai Winding, George Wallington and Mulligan are well worth tracking down, especially OJCCD-2- P7023 which includes two of his best recorded solos on Sid’s Bounce and A Night On Bop Mountain).

“Bob Brookmeyer was with the band for quite a while and he was a heavy drinker too but just like Brew it didn’t affect his playing because he always played real well – some guys can do that. I’ve heard Stan Getz could drink a pint of scotch before a recording session and then wouldn’t miss a note. Towards the end of the gig Claude would be ready to go back to the hotel because he liked to leave early which is when Bobby would take over on piano - complete with Claude’s intros but done humorously. He was very intellectual and a nice guy but he had quite a temper. We drove all the way down from Buffalo one night for a gig at the Virginia Military Institute and everyone was stressed and tired when we finally checked into the motel. The band manager then announced we had an extra afternoon concert to play as well but when he knocked on his door Bobby said, ‘I won’t do it and I’m not putting up with this anymore’ – there might have been a few expletives exchanged too but that is when he left the band. 

“Gene Quill was a great player but totally out of control when he was drunk although he had a young lady traveling with him who could keep him straight and calm him down most of the time.” (Bill Crow told me that when he was on the band in 1953 Gene had the lead clarinet book. Occasionally he would get impatient with the leader if he thought the band was playing too many dance tunes – the ‘go-to-sleep-medleys’. One night instead of playing the dance medley on clarinet he stood on his chair and played lead on alto as loud and wild as he could and before he sat down he gave Claude the finger. Claude just laughed because he loved weirdness and he thought that was really funny. Gene also had a sense of humour. Once when he was coming off the stand with Gerry Mulligan’s CJB at Birdland a customer said, ‘Gene Quill - all you’re doing is imitating Charlie Parker.’  Handing his alto to him Gene replied, ‘Here, you imitate Charlie Parker!’).  “He was happy with Thornhill because it was steady bread and all his friends were there – Med Flory, Bobby, Teddy Kotick and Winston Welsch.

Unfortunately for Gene he was in the wrong place at the wrong time one night in Philadelphia when he got badly beaten up – it wasn’t a mugging, it was an assault”. (Phil Woods and Bill Potts visited him when he was hospitalized. He was lying in a semi-comatose state in an oxygen tent with tubes connected to every orifice. Phil leaned over his bed and said, “Is there anything I can do?”. Gene whispered “Yeah, take my place!”).

“Apart from playing the lead book really well, Med Flory also sang a little bit. He was a nice guy but he always wanted to be a movie star so eventually he went out to the west coast and got some bit parts in TV series like Bonanza, Daniel Boone, Lassie and Mannix.” (Also along with Buddy Clark he became co-leader of Supersax in 1972).

“Nick Travis didn’t travel with us because he was one of the ‘A’ Team of studio players but if we were in New York he took over on lead especially if we played somewhere like the prestigious Café Rouge at the Statler.” (The Statler hotel’s telephone number was famously name-checked on the 1940 Glenn Miller hit Pennsylvania 6-5000).  “We were a traveling band so we could play a supper-club or hotel engagement in town because they were short engagements but we couldn’t do any other gigs. To work regularly in New York a Local 802 union card was needed and you had to be resident there for six months to get one.  

“I never fell in love with the baritone - I was still playing the one I rented when I joined Thornhill. It was always the tenor for me because there were more solos so I left eventually and joined Art Mooney’s band on tenor for about fifteen months. I remember we were playing a resort in Maine when I had a call from my brother here in Tulsa asking if I was ready to come off the road?  I had been recommended for a junior high-school band director’s job in town and I felt I was ready to go home anyway. I started teaching and working on my Master’s Degree and remained in public education until I retired as principal of Edison High School in 1992. 

“I have carried on playing though. I did a tour with Henry Mancini and Bob Hope in the sixties and whenever shows like Chicago, Chorus Line, The Will Rogers Follies or Oklahoma come to our Performing Arts Centre I still get called to play tenor.””

1 comment:

  1. In his collection of essays, "Close Enough for Jazz," Mike Zwerin also wrote about time he spent with Thornhill in his later days. Claude was pretty far downhill by then, so Mike's experience was quite different from Richard's. I've read everything I could find of Zwerin, and found all of it very interesting.

    Jim Brown


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