Sometimes referred to as the King of the Clarinet, Artie Shaw was one of the leading jazz performers and bandleaders of the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, and was one of the first bandleaders to racially integrate by hiring Billie Holiday as his vocalist.Born on New York’s Lower East Side, he was the only child of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria. The family eventually moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Shaw spent many of his formative years. A shy child, he was deeply hurt by the anti-Semitic taunts from his schoolmates. Shaw was further wounded when his father abandoned the family.At an early age he became a compulsive reader, and at 14 he began to play the saxophone (and several months later the clarinet).
Around the age of 15, he quit school to learn to become a better musician. Shaw listened to such jazz greats as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, and Louis Armstrong in an effort to improve his own playing. Moving to Cleveland, he eventually found work with Austin Wylie, a well-known bandleader for whom Shaw took over all the arranging and rehearsing chores. Shaw remained an avid reader and maintained literary aspirations.After listening entranced to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five playing Savoy Blues, West End Blues, and other now-classic Louis Armstrong records from the late 1920’s, Artie made a pilgrimage to Chicago to hear the great trumpet player in person.In 1928 at age 17, he won a trip to Hollywood as part of an essay contest. He met up with some musicians he had known back east. These musicians were with Irving Aaronson’s band, and Shaw joined the group the following year. While with Aaronson, he listened to and learned about the works of such composers as Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy.
The band spent time in Chicago and then went to New York in 1930, but Artie decided to stay there, and within the year, at age 21, he became the top lead-alto sax and clarinet player in the New York radio and recording studios.He was briefly married to Jane Cairns in 1932, but that union was later annulled. After a couple of years of commercial work, he became disillusioned with the music business and bought some acreage with an old farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He moved out there to spend the next year chopping wood for a living and trying to train himself as an author since there seemed to be no way at that time to make a decent living playing the kind of music that interested him.He also tried his hand at marriage again in 1934, this time marrying Margaret Allen (The couple would divorce in 1937). Before long, he was back in New York City’s thriving music scene. He made his first public appearance as a leader in 1936, in a Swing Concert (history’s first) held at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. This proved to be a major turning point in his career, and would in fact ultimately have a significant impact on the future of American Big Band jazz. Shaw (who was then completely unknown to the general public) did something totally unorthodox to fill one of the three minute interludes in front of the stage curtain while such then established headliners as Tommy Dorsey, the Bob Crosby Band, the Casa Loma Band, etc. were being set up. Instead of the usual jazz group (a rhythm section fronted by a soloist), Shaw composed a piece of music for an octet consisting of a legitimate string quartet, a rhythm section (without piano), and himself on clarinet, an extremely innovative combination of instruments at that time.
Fronting this unusual group, he played a piece he had written expressly for the occasion, “Interlude in B-flat” which the group presented to a totally unprepared and, as it turned out, wildly enthusiastic audience. This, by the way, is the first example of what has now come to be labeled “Third Stream Music.”This led to Shaw starting his own band. Around this time, he became Artie Shaw. He originally used Art Shaw as a stage name, but he was told that the name sounded like a sneeze. Reworking the music of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Jerome Kern among others, Shaw made these standards swing. He scored his first big success in 1938 with his version of Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” which he jokingly referred to as “a nice little tune from one of Cole Porter’s very few flop shows.” Shortly before that he had hired Billie Holiday as his band vocalist (the first white band leader to employ a black female singer as a full-time member of his band), and within a year after the release of “Beguine”, the Artie Shaw Orchestra was earning as much as $60,000 weekly, a figure that would nowadays amount to more than $600,000 a week.Holiday eventually quit after encountering racial prejudice while on the road, especially in the South. She did, however, stick around long enough to record one of Shaw’s most famous songs, “Any Old Time,” with the band.Superstardom turned out to be a status that Shaw (as a compulsive perfectionist) found totally uncongenial. He walked off stage in 1939 during a gig in New York City and went to Mexico.Shaw met actress Lana Turner while making the film “Dancing Coed” (1939). Wed in 1940, they divorced after several months together. Shaw scored two Academy Award nominations that year for his work on “Second Chorus” (1940) for his film score and the song “Love of My Life.”
He wrote the music for the song while Johnny Mercer created the lyrics.In March of 1940 he re-emerged with a recording of a song he discovered in Mexico called “Frenesi” which became another smash hit. For this recording session, he used a large studio band with woodwinds, French horns, and a full string section along with the normal dance band instrumentation (another first in big band jazz history). Later that year he formed a touring band with a good-sized string section, with which he recorded several more smash hits, that cemented his status as one of the most popular figures in swing music, among them his by now classic version of “Star Dust,” plus a number of other fine musical recordings such as “Moonglow,” “Dancing in the Dark”, “Concerto for Clarinet,” and many others.His success rivaled the other big names of the time, such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Since both he and Goodman were clarinetists, the rivalry was more intense between them. While he respected Goodman’s technical abilities, Shaw thought that they had very different approaches to their music. He believed that he was more focused on being innovative instead of pleasing the masses. “I was playing; he was swinging,” Shaw once said.In 1941, Shaw married Elizabeth Kern, daughter of composer Jerome Kern, and then shortly thereafter he joined the US Navy shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After finishing boot training, he was asked to form a service band which eventually won the national Esquire poll. He spent the next year and a half taking his music into the forward Pacific war zones, playing as many as four concerts a day throughout the entire Southwest Pacific, on battleships, aircraft carriers, and repair ships, ending with tours of Army, Navy, and Marine bases (and even a number of ANZAC ones when his band arrived in New Zealand and Australia).Shaw became so exhausted (some reports indicate he suffered a mental breakdown) that he received a medical discharge in 1944.On returning to the .S after having undergone several near-miss bombing raids in Guadalcanal, physically exhausted and emotionally depleted, his troubled marriage to Betty Kern ended in divorce after having one son, Steven, together, and in 1944 he formed another civilian band featuring such great performers as pianist Dodo Marmarosa, guitarist Barney Kessel, and the phenomenal trumpeter Roy Eldridge — with which he toured the country and made many excellent recordings.Again charming one of Hollywood’s most attractive leading ladies, Shaw wed actress Ava Gardner in 1945. The union lasted about a year. He quickly moved on to novelist Kathleen Winsor and another short marriage. In the late 1940s, Shaw continued to experiment with his music, recording classical as well as jazz pieces.In 1947, during another hiatus, Shaw spent about a year in New York City in an intensive study of the relation of the clarinet to non-jazz (or, as he prefers to call it, “long-form”) music. This culminated in a tour in 1949 of some of the finest musical organizations in America, such as the Rochester Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Eric Leinsdorf, the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the Dayton Symphony, three appearances with New York’s “Little Orchestra” (one in Newark, a second in Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, and the last in Town Hall). After that Shaw recorded the aforementioned Modern Music for Clarinet album, containing a collection of remarkably well crafted symphonic orchestrations of short works by Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, Poulenc, Kabalevsky, Granados, Gould, along with Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
About that time Shaw again appeared in Carnegie Hall, as guest soloist with the National Youth Orchestra conducted by Leon Barzin, where he received critical acclaim for his rendition of Nicolai Berezowski’s formidable Concerto for Clarinet, which he had previously presented in its world premiere a few weeks earlier with the Denver Symphony. Around that time he performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein at a benefit performance, held at Ebbetts Field, for Israel’s Philharmonic Orchestra. During that year, Shaw also played numerous chamber music recitals with string quartets, at various colleges and universities around the country.Another of Shaw’s ventures during that period was his great 1949 band, which was virtually ignored by the general public until 1989, when an album of some of its work was released on compact discs by MusicMasters, and has since received remarkable worldwide reviews.In 1951 Shaw again quit the music business, this time moving to Duchess County, New York, where he bought a 240 acre dairy farm and wrote his first book, a semi-autobiographical work entitled “The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity,” sections of which have appeared in many anthologies, and which is still in print.Throughout the early ’50s, Artie Shaw assembled several big bands and small combos as well as his own symphony orchestra, (to play a one-week engagement at the opening of a large New York jazz club called Bop City). One such combo which was formed in late 1953 and recorded in 1954, a group known as the Gramercy 5 (a name he took from the New York telephone exchange of the time), maintain an amazingly high degree of popularity to this day.In 1954 Artie Shaw made his last public appearance as an instrumentalist when he put together a new Gramercy 5 made up of such superb modern musicians as pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Tommy Potter, et al.
The most comprehensive sampling of that group (as well as a number of others, going all the way back to 1936 and on up through this final set of records) can be heard on a four record album, now a rare item, released in 1984 by Book of the Month Records, entitled: “Artie Shaw: A Legacy,” which has also received rave reviews. Some of this music was re-issued on two double CD’s by MusicMasters as “Artie Shaw: The Last Recordings, Rare and Unreleased,” and” Artie Shaw: More Last Recordings, The Final Sessions.”Shaw married again, this time to actress Doris Dowling. But by this time, he felt out of step with the popular trends in music and decided to retire in 1954. He also ended his latest marriage not long after. The couple had a son, Jonathan, before divorcing in 1956.In 1955 he left the United States and built a spectacular house on the brow of a mountain on the coast of Northeast Spain, where he lived for five years with his eighth wife, actress Evelyn Keyes, whom he married in 1957. On his return to America in 1960 he settled in a small town named Lakeville, in northwestern Connecticut, where he continued his writing, and in 1964 finished a second book (consisting of three novellas) entitled ” I Love You,” “I Hate You,” and “Drop Dead!” In 1973, he moved back to California again, finally ending up in 1978 in Newbury Park, a small town about 40 miles west of Los Angeles, situated in what he referred to as “Southern California pickup-truck country” where he lived for the rest of his life. He and wife Evelyn lived separately from 1970 until their divorce in the mid-1980s.Around this time, Shaw appeared with a band he formed to play his most popular songs and arrangements. He did not, however, lead the group; he had clarinetist Dick Johnson serve as bandleader. In addition to writing a collection of short stories “The Best of Intentions” Shaw also lectured on music and other numerous topics.He also conducted seminars on literature, art, and the evolution of what is now known as the Big Band Era. He gave lectures at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the California State University at Northridge, and Memphis State University.
He received Honorary Doctorates at California Lutheran University and the University of Arizona. His home contained a library of more than 15,000 volumes, including a large collection of reference works on a wide variety of subjects ranging from Anthropology to Zen.Shaw had been a nationally ranked precision marksman, an expert fly-fisherman, and for the past two decades of his life had been working on the first volume of a fictional trilogy, dealing with the life of a young jazz musician of the 1920’s and 30’s whose story he hoped to take on up into the 1960’s.Shaw’s own life is the subject of a fine feature-length documentary by a Canadian film-maker. “Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got” is a painstakingly thorough examination of Shaw as he was into a ripe old age and as the leader of some of his great bands, including an appearance from one of his two earlier motion pictures, “Second Chorus” (1940). Scenes from his other motion picture, “Dancing Coed” (1939), were not included in the documentary due to prohibitive cost. In a review of the film at Los Angeles’s Filmex Film Festival in the summer of 1985, Variety commented: “A riveting look back at both the big band era and one of its burning lights.” The film received glowing reviews wherever it was shown: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, Toronto, Boston, and on Cinemax, as well as in England, where it ran twice on BBC. It also appeared at Film Festivals in Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, and Spain (where it took first prize in the documentary category). In 1986 it opened the San Francisco Film Festival, and in 1987 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded it the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 1986.As Artie Shaw aged into his nineties, he developed a crusty humor, as evidenced by an epitaph for himself he wrote for Who’s Who in America at the request of the editors: “He did the best he could with the material at hand.” However, at a lecture to music students at the University of Southern California, when someone mentioned having read it, Shaw said, “Yeah, but I’ve been thinking it over and I’ve decided it ought to be shorter, to make it more elegant.” And after a brief pause, “I’ve cut it down to two words;” “Go away.”Before his death in 2004, Shaw received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. He was also named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and was to accept his award on Jan. 7, 2005.