By Stephanie Salter
TERRE HAUTE — If you are among any of the following categories of people, you owe it to yourself (and several other entities) to spend $10 for a ticket to the Claude Thornhill birthday bash Monday night in Harmony Hall:
• You really like music from the belle époque of American big bands — the 1920s to the mid-1950s.
• You like to dance to that genre of music, or you like to watch others dance to it.
• You believe in live musical performances, and you want to support the live women and men who present these performances.
• You say you’d like to see the 12 Points district revitalized and humming as you remember it from the Good Ol’ Days, but you hardly ever do anything concrete about making that happen.
• You know the only way to foster community in Terre Haute (instead of simply complaining about the lack of it) is to get out of your house and engage in that community.
• You are a history buff who cannot believe that Terre Haute’s own celebrated composer and band leader — Claude Thornhill — doesn’t even have a marker for his grave in Roselawn cemetery. And because of that, a whole lot of the music world is under the mistaken impression that Claude was born here in 1909 instead of 1908.
Until a crackerjack trio of local historians — Dorothy Jerse, Mike McCormick and Judy Calvert — went digging on a hunch, those of us involved in Monday night’s big band bash were among the misinformed. (More on the digging in a minute.) We thought Aug. 10 was Claude’s 100th birthday. We were wrong.
So we’re going to celebrate his 101st birthday with the Fabulous 40s Big Band and vocalist Betsy Baer at Harmony Hall (see information box). And we are going to use the occasion to begin fund raising for a proper monument for the maestro’s grave.
In fact, I will personally reward you with a tasty libation for any donation you make toward a monument.
If you saw my colleague Mark Bennett’s column last week, you understand there is plenty to Claude Thornhill that warrants attention in 2009. If you missed the column, please visit www.tribstar.com and learn from Bennett who is, himself, an accomplished rock musician.
As respected and admired as Claude was as a composer and band leader in his time, those talents might have been eclipsed by his genius at arranging music. Monday’s program will include some of his arrangements for such standards as the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When.”
Like most big band leaders, Claude’s crew also performed other bands’ hit songs, and the 17-piece (at least) Fabulous 40s Big Band will do the same.
Baer, a homegrown vocalist and grad of Terre Haute North and St. Mary-of-the Woods, will dip into several songbooks Monday, including the Gershwins’ with “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Hoagy Carmichael’s with “Stardust.”
Some of the 12 Points organizers of the big band bash have been busy removing a few rows of seats from Harmony Hall so there will be room at the foot of the bandstand for dancing. As previously mentioned, refreshments will be available before the show and at intermission.
The entire evening is a fundraiser for the non-profit 12 Points Greater Northside Association, a small but tireless collection of merchants and neighborhood supporters dedicated to a renaissance along the Lafayette Avenue corridor. But when the group’s president, Rich Curtis of the Old Piano Shop, heard about Claude’s monument-challenged grave, he said, “Let’s share the proceeds.”
Now, about that historic digging … We often hear the term, “institutional memory,” usually in conjunction with workplace layoffs when dozens of veterans go out the door and take a company’s institutional memory with them.
In the case of Jerse, McCormick and Calvert, the Wabash Valley is still most fortunate to have at our disposal their prodigious cerebral storehouses of information about our city and county.
As happy as Jerse is to see Claude Thornhill get some of his due with Monday’s bash, she said she had a nagging feeling we were off with the birth date. She and Calvert went to Roselawn, planning to do a paper-and-pencil rubbing of Claude’s headstone. That’s when they discovered only “a grassy space” to the left of the stone for Claude’s folks, Chester and Maude. Claude’s ashes — he died in 1965 — are beneath the grass, unmarked.
Just to make certain, Jerse and Calvert checked Claude’s birth date in WPA records at the Vigo County Library, and McCormick produced a January 1920 Census, in which Claude is listed as 11 years old. A sleuth to her marrow, Jerse also reviewed a 1957 Indiana Who’s Who in Music and she visited the Vital Statistics office at the county annex to get a gander at Claude’s actual birth certificate. All sources agree: He was born Aug. 10, 1908.
(Note to aspiring citizen journalists: That kind of fact-checking is what it takes to do real investigative reporting.)
So, please come to Harmony Hall to celebrate Claude Thornhill, live music, the future of 12 Points, historical accuracy and the new movement to place a headstone over the remains of one of America’s great big band leaders.
It’s a Monday night. What else have you got going?
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.