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Retro Redux: Jazzin’ The Classics With Larry Clinton

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As a long-time fan of big band music, I've found that even though I pretty much like it all, there are some specific types that have always held special appeal. One of my favorite is the music that results when a band plays modern arrangements of timeless classical pieces, a practice that was known in the early days as 'jazzin' the classics'.

Although a lot of purists didn't like the practice, it's something that's been pretty common through the years, and a lot of very good jazz musicians have tried it at one time or another. Some of my favorites include Glen Gray, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, whose reworking of "Nutcracker Suite" is a marvel. Modern swing bands are doing some good things too — in fact, I gave Brian Setzer's Wolfgang's Big Night Out my 2007 Album Of The Year award.

Most of the groups in the big band era had a least a couple of converted classical pieces in their book, and some specialized in the practice to the extent that they became known for it. For a while at least, one of the best-known was the Larry Clinton Orchestra.

Clinton was a Brooklyn-born musician who originally played the trumpet and later other instruments, but in the late 1930's became better known as a talented arranger — and as the leader of his own namesake orchestra. For a few years his group was one of the most popular around, and a lot of it had to do with the audience's fondness for the updated classics.

Clinton founded his own band largely on the fame he'd gained from the arranging and composing talents he'd shown with the Dorsey Brothers band. In fact, the biggest success he had while he was with the brothers was a little tune that also ended up being his own band's theme song — "The Dipsy Doodle."

But in spite of the success of that song, Clinton's trademark became his reworking of the old classics. He tackled the work of many composers, even preceding Ellington with a version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite." In many cases he also added lyrics, which helped sell the songs to the band's listeners. A good example is one of the band's biggest hits, "My Reverie," a tune based on Debussy's piano masterpiece that was brought to life by talented vocalist Bea Wain. (Video below, but singer is Peggy Mann.)

During World War II, the band was – er – disbanded, and Clinton became a decorated military pilot and later a flight instructor. In the post-war years he again concentrated on music, including trying to lead various groups for performing and recording, but modern jazz listeners were looking for something different and Clinton eventually retired from music. In later years he had some success at writing, and died in 1985.

Although Larry Clinton is not considered one of the big names of the swing era, in recent years his legacy has risen in the eyes of many. Although still not ranked as a jazz great, he's appreciated for his contributions in composing and arranging, along with leading a band that often turned out some pretty darn good music.

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