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Artie Shaw in Second Chorus (1940)
|Birth name||Arthur Jacob Arshawsky|
May 23, 1910|
New York City, New York, United States
|Died||December 30, 2004
Thousand Oaks, California, United States
|Genres||Swing, big band|
Widely regarded as "one of jazz's finest clarinetists," Shaw led one of the United States' most popular big bands in the late 1930s through the early 1940s. Though he had numerous hit records, he was perhaps best known for his 1938 recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Prior to the release of "Beguine" Shaw and his fledgeling band had languished in relative obscurity for over two years and after its release he became a major pop artist within short order. The record eventually became one of the era's defining recordings. Musically restless, Shaw was also an early proponent of what became known much later as Third Stream music, which blended elements of classical and jazz forms and traditions. He also recorded with small jazz groups drawn from within the ranks of the various big bands he led. He served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1944 (during which time he led a morale-building band that toured the South Pacific amidst the chaos of World War II), and following his discharge in 1944 he returned to lead a band through 1945. Following the break-up of that band he began to focus on other interests and gradually withdrew from the world of being a professional musician and major celebrity, although he remained a force in popular music and jazz before retiring from music altogether in 1954.
Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City, the son of Sarah (née Strauss) and Harry Arshawsky, who worked as a dressmaker and photographer. His family was Jewish; his father was from Russia and his mother was from Austria. Shaw grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where, according to his autobiography, his natural introversion was deepened by local antisemitism. Shaw began learning the saxophone when he was 13 years old, and by the age of 16, he switched to the clarinet and left home to tour with a band. Returning to New York, he became a session musician through the early 1930s. From 1925 until 1936, Shaw performed with many bands and orchestras; from 1926 to 1929, he worked in Cleveland and established a lasting reputation as music director and arranger for an orchestra led by the violinist Austin Wylie. In 1929 and 1930 he played with Irving Aaronson's Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music, which he would later incorporate in his arrangements.
Shaw first gained attention with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York in 1935. During the swing era, his big bands were popular with hits like "Begin the Beguine" (1938), "Stardust" (with a trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield), "Back Bay Shuffle," "Moonglow," "Rosalie" and "Frenesi." The show was well-received but forced to dissolve in 1937 because his band's sound was not commercial. He was an innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation; "Interlude in B-flat," where he was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed third stream. His incorporating of stringed instruments could be attributed to the influence of classical composer Igor Stravinsky.
In addition to hiring Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated Southern U.S. However, after recording "Any Old Time" she left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more "mainstream" singer. His band became enormously successful, and his playing was eventually recognized as equal to that of Benny Goodman: longtime Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard cited Shaw as his favorite clarinet player. In response to Goodman's nickname, the "King of Swing," Shaw's fans dubbed him the "King of the Clarinet." Shaw, however, felt the titles were reversed. "Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music," he said. In 1938 DownBeat Magazine's readers agreed with Shaw's evaluation and named Artie Shaw as the King of Swing.
Shaw took himself seriously as an artist and valued experimental and innovative music rather than generic dance and love songs, despite an extremely successful career that sold more than 100 million records. He fused jazz with classical music by adding strings to his arrangements, experimented with bebop, and formed "chamber jazz" groups that used such novel sounds as harpsichords or Afro-Cuban music.
Like his main rival, Benny Goodman, and other leaders of big bands, Shaw fashioned a smaller "band within the band" in 1940. He named it Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five after his home telephone exchange. Band pianist Johnny Guarneri played a harpsichord on the quintet recordings and Al Hendrickson played an electric guitar, which was unusual in jazz recordings of the time. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge later became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. In 1940 the original Gramercy Five pressed eight records, then Shaw dissolved this band in early 1941. The Gramercy Five's biggest hit was "Summit Ridge Drive" and was one of Shaw's million-selling singles. A CD of The Complete Gramercy Five sessions was released in 1990.
His last prewar band, organized in September 1941, included Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Max Kaminsky, Georgie Auld, and Guarnieri.
The long series of musical groups Shaw formed included such talents as vocalists Billie Holiday, Helen Forrest and, Mel Tormé; drummers Buddy Rich and Dave Tough, guitarists Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Tal Farlow and trombonist-arranger Ray Conniff, among countless others. He composed his "Theme" song, the haunting, morose "Nightmare," with its Hasidic nuances, rather than use a more "accessible" song. It was as if Shaw was saying in musical terms that he and his band weren't inviting anyone to dance a la Goodman's "Let's Dance" nor were they getting sentimental over anything, a la Tommy Dorsey's "I'm Gettin' Sentimental Over You." Whatever it was or whether or not there was any deeper meaning to it, Nightmare was a profoundly unique choice for a theme song especially in the face of what virtually every other swing band leader was doing; yet perhaps it did illustrate the deeper search for the meaning of anything in the mind of its intellectually driven composer. In a televised interview of the 1970s, Shaw derided the often "asinine" songs created in the song-mills of Tin Pan Alley that were the lifeblood of popular music of the period and which bands, especially the most popular (I.E., his own) were compelled to play night after night. In 1994, he told Frank Prial (The New York Times), "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was Begin the Beguine. " 
During World War II, Shaw enlisted in the United States Navy and shortly after formed a band, which served in the Pacific theater (just as Glenn Miller's wartime band served in the UK and Europe). After 18 months playing for Navy personnel (sometimes as many as four concerts a day in battle zones, including Guadalcanal), Shaw returned to the U.S. in a state of physical exhaustion and received a medical discharge. After the war, the popularity of big bands declined, as crooners and bebop began to dominate the charts. In the late 1940s, Shaw performed classical music at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
Throughout his career, Shaw had a habit of forming bands, developing them according to his immediate aspirations, make a series of records and almost just as quickly disband them, as if his fundamental task of the moment was completed or perhaps he just got bored with what was becoming a routine. Either way, he generally did not stick around long enough to reap their success by touring and playing the hits for audiences who were more than eager to see and hear him and his band play them. Following the breakup of what was already his second band in 1939, he rarely toured at all, and if he did, his personal appearances were usually limited to long-term engagements in a single venue or bookings that did not require much traveling, unlike many bands of the era that traveled great distances doing seemingly endless strings of one-night engagements. It should be noted that apart from his interest in music, Shaw had a tremendous intellect and almost insatiable thirst for intellectual knowledge and literature. During his self-imposed "sabbaticals" from the music business his interests included studying advanced mathematics, as cited in Karl Sabbagh's The Riemann Hypothesis. His first interregnum, at the height of his success, was met with disbelief by booking agents. They predicted that Shaw would not only be abandoning a million-dollar enterprise but that nightclub and theater owners would sue him for breach of contract. Shaw's offhand response was, "Tell 'em I'm insane. A nice, young American boy walking away from a million dollars, wouldn't you call that insane?" (As told to Tony Palmer in an interview for the "All You Need Is Love" TV documentary on the history of popular music.)
In 1954, Shaw stopped playing the clarinet, citing his own perfectionism, which, he later said, would have killed him. He explained to a reporter, "In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk, or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I'm not able to do that." and "I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice." He spent the rest of the 1950s living in Europe.
In 1983, after years of prodding by veteran band-booker Williard Alexander, the 73-year-old Shaw organized a new band and selected clarinetist Dick Johnson as bandleader and soloist. The 58-year-old Johnson, an accomplished woodwind and saxophone player and native of Brockton, Massachusetts, was no stranger to jazz having recorded numerous albums of his own and he had idolized Shaw's playing throughout his life. Shaw's music library, which was the product of his almost twenty years of activity in the music business, contained numerous arrangements of monumental status of popular music in addition to many original big band jazz compositions of its era. It was a collection of music arranged by some of the foremost composer/arrangers of the period, much of which was sketched out by Shaw himself and filled in and completed by his orchestrator/arranger collaborators, among them Jerry Gray, William Grant Still, Lennie Hayton, Ray Conniff, Eddie Sauter and Jimmy Mundy, just to name a few. Shaw rehearsed his new band (based out of Boston, Massachusetts) and the band made its official debut on New Year's Eve 1984 at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, which had been the same launching pad for many bands of the Swing Era decades earlier, when Shaw himself and his bands were in their prime. Shaw appeared with the band throughout its first few years, limiting his role to being its conductor and front man while leaving the clarinet playing duties to Johnson. In 1985, another week-long series of strenuous rehearsals followed during which Shaw added more repertoire, including many arrangements and compositions that were from the later years of his career but which Shaw had never recorded. By 1987 though, Shaw was no longer touring with the band, quietly content that Johnson and the band kept true to Shaw's spirit and vision for it. He would however, show up on occasion "just to hear how things sounded."
Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman interviewed Hoagy Carmichael, Doc Cheatham and others including Shaw for her documentary film Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet (1981) about Bix Beiderbecke, and afterward she went on to create an Academy Award-winning documentary, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985), featuring extensive interviews with Shaw, Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé, Helen Forrest, and other musicians in addition to Shaw's seventh wife, actress Evelyn Keyes. The documentary ends with Shaw rehearsing his new band with co-leader Johnson present, and rolls to credits perhaps quite fittingly with the band taking a final segue to Shaw's theme song Nightmare. In 2000, filmmaker Ken Burns interviewed Shaw at his home for his PBS documentary/miniseries Jazz in which Shaw appears in multiple segments. Shaw's last major interview was in 2003, when he was interviewed by Russell Davies for the BBC Television documentary, Artie Shaw – Quest for Perfection. It also included interviews with surviving members of his original bands as well as Johnson and other music industry professionals.
Shaw donated his papers, most of which amounted to his music library of over 700 scores and parts and approximately 1,000 pieces of sheet music to Boston University in 1980. In 1991 the collection was transferred to the School of Music of the University of Arizona in Tucson. In 2004, he was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
A self-proclaimed "very difficult man," Shaw was married eight times; two were annulled and the others all ended in divorce: Jane Cairns (1932–33 annulled); Margaret Allen (1934–37); actress Lana Turner (1940); Betty Kern, the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern (1942–43); actress Ava Gardner (1945–46); Forever Amber author Kathleen Winsor (1946–48, annulled); actress Doris Dowling (1952–56); and actress Evelyn Keyes (1957–85). He had one son, Steven Kern, with Betty Kern, and another son, Jonathan Shaw, with Doris Dowling. Both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner later described Shaw as being extremely emotionally abusive. His controlling nature and incessant verbal abuse in fact drove Turner to have a nervous breakdown, soon after which she divorced him. Shaw also briefly dated actress Judy Garland in 1939.
In 1946, Shaw was present at a meeting of the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan, part of a core group of actors and artists who were trying to sway the organization away from Communism, presented an anti-Communist declaration which, if signed, was to run in newspapers. There was bedlam as many rose to champion the communist cause, and Artie Shaw began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution. In 1953, Shaw was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Council, which it considered a Communist front.
He was a precision marksman, ranking fourth in the United States in 1962, as well as an expert fly fisherman. In his later years, Shaw lived and wrote in the Newbury Park section of Thousand Oaks, California. He died on December 30, 2004, at the age of 94. According to his publicist, he had been "in ill health for some time, but I don't know the specific cause of death." In fact, Shaw had long been suffering from diabetes. In 2005, Shaw's eighth wife, Evelyn Keyes sued Shaw's estate, claiming that she was entitled to one-half of Shaw's estate pursuant to a contract to make a will between them. In July 2006, a Ventura, California jury unanimously held that Keyes was entitled to almost one-half of Shaw's estate, or $1,420,000.
Shaw did many big band remote broadcasts, and throughout the autumn and winter of 1938 he was often heard from the Blue Room of New York's Hotel Lincoln (now the Milford Plaza). Following tours throughout the spring and summer of 1939 Shaw and his band were resident at the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. That same period of the fall of 1938 into much of 1939, was the period of his only regular radio series as headliner, with comedian/humorist Robert Benchley acting as emcee. Sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, Shaw broadcast on CBS from November 20, 1938, until November 14, 1939. It was at the Cafe Rouge where Shaw literally "quit" his own band that very week in November and "escaped" to Mexico. The band carried on without Shaw into January but ultimately broke up without him. Following Shaw's return from Mexico in 1940, and still under contract to record for RCA Victor, he recorded Frenesi with a group of session musicians in Hollywood. Shaw's "experiment" recording six tunes on the Frenesi session - to try and incorporate a jazz band into a group of strings and woodwinds ended up creating another monster-hit record for Shaw with Frenesi, and he was signed to be the house bandleader for the Burns and Allen Show for 26 weeks emanating from Hollywood beginning in July 1940. Shaw reorganized again with a full-time band that was much along the lines of his previous swing band concept of 1937-39 but to its instrumentation he added six violins, two violas and one 'cello thereby adding a small string section to it. The addition of a string section to a "popular" big band was not new, as it had been done by Paul Whiteman and others since the 1920s. What Shaw did was modernize the concept however and bring it in line with what was going on in popular music and jazz in 1940 at what was the height of swing as a purely musical progression in its development. The presence of the strings also gave Shaw a wider tonal palette to draw from in conceiving original compositions and arrangements of current pop tunes, which he could then use to his advantage as an instrumentalist and which allowed him to focus more on ballads and musical textures and subtleties as a consummate soloist as opposed to just leading another frenetic swing band (a concept he had abandoned the previous year in 1939); at least to the degree he could get away with it and still be considered a "popular dance band." By now Shaw was at or near the top of the short list virtuoso jazz instrumentalists fronting any sort of band large or small. The band was showcased on the Burns and Allen program each week and Shaw's contract was renewed for another 13 weeks when the program transferred to New York. Shaw broke up the Hollywood band keeping a nucleus of seven musicians in addition to himself and filled out the ensemble with New York musicians until it all came to an end in March 1941.
While taking a few months off in the spring of 1941 to reassess what to do next, Shaw furthered his musical development and during the summer he recorded in another small group format with three horns and a four-man rhythm section with the addition of a dozen strings, and by September he was re-forming another big band, this one with seven brass, five saxes, four rhythm and 15 strings to go out on tour. Remote broadcasts of this band coming from ballrooms where they appeared have this band performing in very good form and Shaw dazzling the crowd with his clarinet playing. Three months into the tour the 31-piece band was in the midst of a matinee performance in Providence, Rhode Island, when Shaw was handed a note by the stage manager to read on stage. The day was December 7, and notice had just come in that the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor, and the note handed to Shaw for him to read aloud was an instruction for all military personnel in the audience to report at once to their bases. When a large portion of the audience in the theater left immediately, Shaw knew at once it was all over and following the performance the band was put on notice. One more recording session date was made in January 1942 and this edition of Artie Shaw and his various bands and orchestras came to a rather abrupt end.
Shaw enlisted in the Navy and following his discharge in 1944 he formed another band, this time what could be considered a "modern" big band in that it contained what is now considered the de facto "standard" of eight brass and five saxes. It did not include any strings and was based in Hollywood, California, where Shaw was living at the time. Shaw continued to record for RCA Victor records as he had before the war and limited the band's personal appearances to military bases in California, and a number of remote broadcasts of this band performing live also exist. Shaw's long-standing recording contract with RCA ended and he made his last records for them in August 1945. Thereafter he signed with an independent label, Musicraft records, but broke up the band at the end of the year. He made a few records for Musicraft before the band broke up and all of the subsequent recordings for Musicraft from 1946 were all staffed by top-notch session musicians. The big band was back in the studio, but so too were the strings, and it was on these Musicraft recordings in 1946 that Shaw featured the young singer Mel Tormé and on some of the sides he also featured Torme with his vocal group the Meltones.
In 1940 and at the height of his popularity, the 30-year-old Shaw reportedly earned up to $60,000 per week. For a comparison, George Burns and Gracie Allen were each making US $5,000 per week during the year that Shaw and his orchestra provided the music for their radio show. He also acted on the show as a love interest for Gracie Allen, although it was these sort of situations he disliked having to be a part of as part of the celebrity pop-culture of the period.
Films, TV and fiction
Shaw made several musical shorts in 1939 for Vitaphone and Paramount Pictures. He portrayed himself in the Fred Astaire film, Second Chorus (1940), which featured Shaw and his orchestra playing Concerto for Clarinet and his 1940-41 Hollywood period Star Dust band can be heard throughout the soundtrack. The film brought him two Oscar nominations, one for Best Score and one for Best Song ("Love of My Life"). He collaborated on the love song "If It's You" sung by Tony Martin in the Marx Brothers' film, The Big Store (1941). In 1950 he was a mystery guest on What's My Line?, and during the 1970s he made appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Many of his recordings have been used in motion pictures. His 1940 recording of "Stardust" was used in its entirety in the closing credits of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Martin Scorsese also used the Shaw theme song, "Nightmare," in his Academy Award-winning Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.
Shaw credited his time in the Navy from 1942 to 1944 as a period of renewed introspection. After his discharge he entered psychoanalysis and began to gradually withdraw from music to pursue a writing career. His autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, was published in 1952 (with later reprint editions in 1992 and 2001). Revealing downbeat elements of the music business, Shaw explained that "the trouble with Cinderella" is "nobody ever lives happily ever after." He turned to semi-autobiographical fiction with the three short novels in I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! (1965, reprinted in 1997), which prompted Terry Southern's comment: "Here is a deeply probing examination of the American marital scene. I flipped over it!" Shaw's short stories, including "Snow White in Harlem," were collected in The Best of Intentions and Other Stories (1989). He worked for years on his 1000-page autobiographical novel, The Education of Albie Snow, but the three-volume work remains unpublished. Currently, through Curtis International Associates, the Artie Shaw Orchestra is still active.
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- Tom Nolan, Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times (W. W. Norton, New York, 2011).
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Artie Shaw.|
- University of Arizona: Artie Shaw Collection
- Artie Shaw at the Internet Movie Database
- Biography at swingmusic.net
- Swing Bandleader, Clarinetist Artie Shaw Dies, The Washington Post, December 31, 2004