“Carnival of Venice” (1940) Larry Clinton

“Carnival of Venice”

Composed by Niccolo Paganini; arranged by Larry Clinton.

Recorded by Larry Clinton and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird on December 12, 1940 in Chicago.

Larry Clinton, directing: Johnny Napton, first trumpet; Walter Smith and Johnny Martell, trumpets; Joe Ortolano, Howard Gibeling and Jimmy Curry, trombones; Ben Feman, first alto saxophone; Steve Benoric, alto saxophone; Fran Ludwig and Don Hammond, tenor saxophones; Bill Straub, piano; Art Ryerson, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Paul Richter, drums.

The story:

Larry Clinton (1909-1985) was one of the smartest bandleaders to emerge during the swing era. First of all, he had the tools to be a successful bandleader: he was a first-class arranger who had good musical taste. He also had the ability to mold disparate musicians into a solid, swinging band, and then to get optimal performances out of them consistently. What he wasn’t was a virtuoso instrumentalist. Although he played passable trumpet, trombone and clarinet, his skills on those instruments were not such that he felt he could feature himself playing them, though he did play them with his band in ensemble passages. Finally, although he had substantial success during the four years he led a standing band that toured, he was not the kind of person who had to be in the spotlight in order to be happy. When he felt that he had had enough of being a bandleader, he essentially retired from bandleading in late 1941 at age 32. The records he had made, first for Victor and then for Bluebird, had sold and continued to sell very well. Among them were several million-sellers. The ongoing royalties he received for those recordings, as well as the money he had saved and invested, provided him a comfortable income for the rest of his life. (At right: Larry Clinton was depicted on the cover of the March 1938 issue of Metronome magazine, just as his big band was beginning to gain popularity.)

The music:

Carnival of Venice” is based on a Neapolitan folk tune called “O Mamma, Mamma Cara,” and was popularized by virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini, who wrote twenty variations on the original tune. He titled it “Il Carnevale Di Venezia,” Op. 10. In 1829, he wrote to a friend, “The variations I’ve composed on the graceful Neapolitan ditty, ‘O Mamma, Mamma Cara,’ outshine everything. I can’t describe it.”

A series of themes and variations on “Carnival of Venice” has been written for solo cornet or trumpet as “show off” pieces that contain virtuoso displays of double and triple tonguing, and fast tempos. (See note 2 below for a link to one of Harry James’s recordings of it.)

Since the time of Paganini, many variations on “Carnival of Venice” have been written for a variety of instruments. Notable are those by Jean-Baptiste Arban,(2) Del Staigers, and Herbert L. Clarke for cornet, trumpet, and euphonium; Francisco Tarrega and Johann Kaspar Mertz for classical guitar; Ignace Gibsone and Louis Moreau Gottschalk for piano, and Giovanni Bottesini for double bass. Chopin’s “Souvenir de Paganini,” dedicated to Paganini, is yet another variation on this theme. The piece has also been arranged for tuba, and has been recorded numerous times by people playing that somewhat unwieldy instrument. The pop novelty “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”, based on the melody of “Carnival of Venice,” was composed and recorded in 1952.(3)

A group of Larry Clinton’s sidemen pose with him on January 21 1941 – Haven rehearsal studio, Manhattan: L-R: trombones – Jimmy Curry, Clinton, Miff Sines (real name Dominic Sinischelcci), Howard Gibeling; trumpets: Walter Smith, Bob Alexy and Henry Cowan; in front: alto saxophonist Ben Feman and baritone saxophonist Henry “Butch” Stone.

Larry Clinton’s recording of “Carnival of Venice” is firmly within the swing idiom. It features a very good band playing well-arranged ensemble passages beautifully, with a couple of colorful instrumental solos along the way.

The eight-bar introduction consists of two halves. The first is delivered in robust fashion by the entire ensemble; the second by the reeds and brass alternately. Then first alto saxophonist Ben Feman steps forward to play the melody as the first chorus begins. His sixteen bar outing is backed by taut rhythm and precisely played brass flares. The entire band blasts through the syncopations of next 16 bar sequence.

This is followed by a transitional passage led by the four saxophones underlined by the three open trombones. Then the saxophones play a swinging paraphrase of the melody, with muted brass punctuations and drummer Paul Richter’s back-beats. Another transition, really an upward modulation, led by Ben Feman on alto saxophone, in dialog with the rhythmic open brass, sets up Fran Ludwig’s tasty improvised tenor saxophone solo. Once again, this solo is played against swinging rhythm and brass flares.

The Larry Clinton band celebrates their leader’s third anniversary as a bandleader – Early December 1940 in Memphis. L-R around the table: Charlie Blake, Don Hammond (behind), Jim Curry, Walter Smith, Steve Benoric, Ben Feman (behind), Alex Casper (road manager), Joe Ortolano, Hank Wayland, Clinton, Terry Allen, Bill Straub, Peggy Mann and Johnny Martell; Behind them L-R: George Rose, Fran Ludwig and Howard Gibeling.(4)

Another transition follows, led by the robust open trombones in dialog with the saxophones. Then Clinton springs a bit of clever arranging which places the open trumpets playing the melody in unison against riffing saxophones atop romping rhythm. Swirling saxophones and low trombones set up the powerful finale which has the saxophones playing the melody against riffing brass.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Larry Clinton continued to work in music after 1941, but on a part-time basis. He chose his work carefully. He stopped working in music entirely around 1960.

(2) Harry James recorded a superb trumpet performance of “Carnival of Venice” in 1941. He made some adjustments to the arrangement written by Jean-Baptiste Arban that had become accepted as a classic. Here is a link to James’s recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zeo6NlEzHyc

(3) The information on the history of the musical composition “Carnival of Venice” comes from the Wikipedia post on that subject.

(4) This photo comes from the January 1, 1941 issue of Down Beat, page 24. Lead trumpeter Johnny Napton does not appear in this photo. Shortly after this photo was taken, George Rose, Steve Benoric and Fran Ludwig were injured in a taxicab accident in St. Louis, where the Clinton band was working at the Fox Theater. Rose, who suffered a broken collar bone, was out of action for several weeks. Benoric and Ludwig, though shaken and bruised, returned to the Clinton band immediately.

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