|Artie Shaw: The King is Dead, Long Live the King|
|Written by Athan Maroulis|
A requiem for Artie Shaw
"The power of accurate observation is called cynicism by those who have not got it."
The preceding quote came from George Bernard Shaw, but he might as well have been saying it about Artie Shaw. For what was true in Artie's day remains so today—if your opinion dissents from the mainstream, you are branded a cynic, close-minded or bitter.
Artie Shaw was a sharp, observant son-of-a-bitch, and he certainly had his own opinion—as well as the chutzpah and talent to back it up. The eclectic and electric Artie Shaw passed away on December 30, 2004 at the age of 94, leaving behind a unique, diverse and wonderfully contradictory and polarized life and career.
Fifty years ago Artie put his clarinet in its case and never again played in public or on record. He stated, "I did all you can do with a clarinet. Any more would have been less." Hard to imagine, but for a man of this insatiable nature, mastering something might have only provided monotony afterwards.
Yet his mastery and command of the clarinet produced a tone so expressive and human that his often harsh words may have been a front for the world. Bear in mind, Shaw penned "Nightmare", a haunting dirge of a number, that he elected to represent him as his theme song. That in itself might give you a hint as to the real Artie Shaw.This first-generation son of Jewish immigrants began life as Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on May 23, 1910 in New York City's dirt-poor Lower East Side. It is not known for sure when he shortened his name to Shaw. The family moved to New Haven, CT, where Artie quickly excelled at playing the saxophone, enabling him to take part in both school and local bands. By fifteen, he left home in search of a career as a professional musician and soon landed work with a series of different touring bands.
Shaw, realizing the innumerable possibilities that exist within jazz, was deeply affected by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, as well as the pioneering duo of Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer. Add to that his growing interest in composers such as Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy and one begins to see the shapes of things to come.
By 1929 Shaw was playing tenor saxophone with Irving Aaronson's Commanders in California. The following year Shaw moved to New York City, where he perfected his arranging skills while also becoming a highly sought-after session musician on both lead alto saxophone and clarinet. Some of his session peers included the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, and Red Norvo. All would later go on to be fine bandleaders in their own right.
During this time Shaw's growing disdain for the music business prompted the first of his many decisions to walk away. In 1934 he purchased a farm in Bucks County, PA, intent on being an author. George T. Simon in his definitive book The Big Bands once said of him, "Artie Shaw was a searcher," further adding, "He was a thinker, a much deeper thinker than most bandleaders, a man concerned and constantly analyzing his place."
Opting out of solid session work in the lean years of the Depression, Shaw spent the next year writing a book about cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Then he turned around and tore the book to shreds, apparently unhappy with his own efforts. Soon he returned to New York City and began freelancing once again. This would have been a fine existence for most musicians, but not for the driven Shaw.
An event that changed the course of music history occurred on August 21, 1935 when Shaw's former session-mate and future rival Benny Goodman (on the heels of his popular radio show Let's Dance) tore the house down at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, effectively turning swing music into a national craze. Shortly thereafter, another monumental moment in jazz history occurred when promoter Joe Helbock staged the first true jazz concert on May 24, 1936, billing it as "Swing Music Concert" at the Imperial Theatre in New York. The bill included the likes of Bob Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Tommy Dorsey.
Helbock needed lesser-known acts to fill the gaps in between the sets of the bigger stars and asked Shaw to take part. Artie wisely assembled a band that combined a string quartet and rhythm section led by his clarinet—a unique light touch that was intentionally different than the brassy bands being presented that evening.
That night Arthur Shaw's Swing String Ensemble performed a song Shaw had written especially for the evening called "Interlude in B-Flat". The crowd roared for an encore and since the band had only rehearsed that one piece, they simply did it again! Not only was the crowd impressed, so was Tommy Rockwell, head of the Rockwell-O'Keefe booking agency, and he convinced Artie to form a band. Thus, Artie Shaw and His Orchestra were born, debuting at the Lexington Hotel in New York City in the summer of 1936.
Through the year 1937, the band continued to tour as well record for the Brunswick label, but with little success. Shaw once reflected on this time by stating, "A white band in those days had to play the kind of bland, smooth, polished stuff that white audiences demanded. As I've often said, you can do that with a windshield wiper and an out-of-tune tenor sax playing ‘My Melancholy Baby'."
Shaw, along with the talented arranger and violinist Jerry Gray, took some time to analyze the band's future before accepting an extended engagement in Boston at the Roseland State Ballroom in March, 1938. There the duo honed the band's sound, shuffled bandmembers and worked on new arrangements. One of those would result in a staple of the era when Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" was worked into their repertoire.
"Begin the Beguine" was actually the first song the band recorded for the Bluebird label, a union which lasted from 1938 to 1945 and included innumerable hit singles. That day—July 24, 1938—not only included the recording of the aforementioned Cole Porter gem, but also featured Billie Holiday's sole recording with the band on the Shaw-penned tune "Any Old Time". Due to Shaw's daring decision, Holiday (who had officially joined the band during the Boston engagement) became one of the first black Americans to be featured in an all-white band.
Billie's tenure with the band lasted all of nine months, when she decided to quit after enduring one too many racist remarks from audience members. Shaw was carrying two female vocalists at the time, both Holiday and the underrated Helen Forrest, who stayed on until Shaw actually broke up this band. "Beguine" was in fact the B-side of "Indian Love Call", but that didn't prevent it from shooting to Number One on the charts.
For Shaw, this overnight celebrity status was both a blessing and a curse, and he stated, "Success is a very big problem, bigger than failure. You can deal with failure. But success is an opiate and you get very confused. Things happen that you have no preparation for, money comes in and people throw themselves at you. And you don't know what you're into. It becomes nuts. I couldn't handle it, I didn't know what to do with it."
In September of 1938, Shaw had the first of his many collapses, quite possibly due to the strain of maintaining the rigid touring schedule necessary to support a hit record. Shaw recovered and the hits continued, supported by numerous film appearances and magazines cover stories.
Shaw began to loathe the very public life that came with the territory of success and was quite outspoken about his dislike of autograph-seekers and obsessive bobby-soxers, often referring to them as "morons." As Shaw once said of his massive hit record, "‘Begin the Beguine' became an albatross around my neck. I loved it originally; I made a good record of it. But the audiences didn't understand—I was through with that, let's get on. And they never could get it through their heads that what they liked was something I was doing on my way to getting better."
The outspoken Shaw continued to despise various aspects of the music industry and was often quoted referring to music executives as "thieves." Many years later he was asked what is was like to be a working successful musician in the 30s and 40s. He stated, "You must remember that we had another world at that time. There was no television. There was radio, the only mass medium. And if you wanted to play for a living you had to play execrable music, music [that] was really dreadful, something that sickened you. 'Cause you were selling automobiles, you were selling soap, you were selling everything but music. Music was the way to get an audience to listen, ostensibly, then you'd sell them something. That was what radio was about."
At the height of his popularity, Shaw suffered another collapse, but this time the cause was a rare blood disease that he miraculously survived. For a time Shaw returned to his demanding schedule, but in late 1939 he walked off the stage at the Café Rouge in New York City's Pennsylvania Hotel. Breaking up his successful band, he sought an escape by traveling to a small town in Mexico.
There Shaw was moved by the sound of Latin music, and upon his eventual return, recorded "Frenesi" with a new orchestra that brought yet another Number One hit in 1940. While still maintaining his orchestra, he formed a new side project—Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five. This incredible sextet recorded beauties like "Summer Ridge Drive" and "Cross Your Heart", although it was the 1940 orchestra that recorded the October 7th version of "Stardust". That landmark version continues to be among the finest versions of a song interpreted thousands of times and also boasts the most unbelievable clarinet solos ever recorded. Then, in early 1941, he simply broke up that band and turned around and formed another.
In April of 1942 Shaw enlisted in the Navy and originally intended to serve, but the Navy wanted him to make music instead. Shaw put together a few different bands and performed all over the Pacific for the troops, even during bombings and attacks. This took its toll on Shaw and he was honorably discharged in early 1944.
For the next ten years Shaw tried a number of different things, studying classical guitar and clarinet, and putting it to use in a "chamber jazz" ensemble that utilized harpsichord. Shaw continued his never ending search for new sounds, flirted with Afro-Cuban styles and later was even open to bebop jazz. Then, at age 43 in 1954, he decided to announce his official retirement, simply stating, "I saw death approaching."
Artie was tired and bored, and escaped to Spain for a number of years in order to write. He had already published his autobiography The Trouble with Cinderella a few years earlier, and would go on to complete two books of short stories. In addition to that, Shaw spent the next five decades in a number of pursuits including farming, lecturing on the college circuit, film distribution, mastering chess, and becoming a marksman and an all-around craftsman.
Shaw's incredible career in music is often compared to that of clarinetist Benny Goodman who has always been callled "The King of Swing." In contrast, Shaw's fans started refering to him as "The King of the Clarinet."The truth is the rivalry itself seemed more inspired by the music press and fans than by either man.
Years later Shaw might have summed it up best when he said, "I was trying to play a musical thing, and Benny was trying to swing. Benny had great fingers; I'd never deny that. But listen to our two versions of 'Stardust.' I was playing; he was swinging."
Shaw's opinion of Glenn Miller, the most popular bandleader of the War Years, was clear when he stated, "He had what you call a Republican band, kind of strait-laced, middle of the road. Miller was that kind of guy, he was a businessman. He was sort of the Lawrence Welk of jazz and that's one of the reasons he was so big, people could identify with what he did. But the biggest problem [was that] his band never made a mistake. And if you never make a mistake, you're not trying; you're not playing at the edge of your ability. You're playing safely within limits…and it sounds, after awhile, extremely boring."
One of Shaw's most curious legacies will always be his eight marriages to the most desirable women of their generation. Many of them lasted less than two years and included actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, and Elizabeth Kern (daughter of Jerome Kern), author Kathleen Winsor and finally actress Evelyn Keyes, whose marriage to Shaw lasted longer than all of his other marriages combined. So much for beauty—Shaw often spoke publicly of the fact that at least a few of them were, in his words, "dimwits."
The outspoken Artie Shaw, "The King of the Clarinet," is gone, although it might be best to let him have the last word. Once asked who he thought was the best, Shaw replied, "Well, no point in false modesty about that. I was the best. And when you look at those of us who were big then—Miller, Dorsey, Basie, Goodman—I think my life has turned out the best, too."
The King is dead, long live the King.