Artie Shaw Orchestra
On the eve of America's entry into World War II, TIME magazine reported that to the German masses the United States meant "sky-scrapers, Clark Gable, and ARTIE SHAW" Some 42 years after that, in December l983, Artie Shaw made a brief return to the bandstand, after thirty years away from music, not to play his world-famous clarinet but to launch his latest (and still touring) orchestra at the newly refurbished Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York.
Oddly enough, New Rochelle isn't all that far from New Haven, Connecticut, where Artie Shaw spent his formative years and at an early age became a compulsive reader. At the age of 14 he began to play the saxophone (and several months later the clarinet). At 15 he left home to play all over America, meanwhile studying the work of his early jazz idols, such as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, and Louis Armstrong.
At the age of 16 Artie went to Cleveland, where he remained for three years, the last two working with Austin Wylie, then Cleveland's top band leader, for whom Shaw took over all the arranging and rehearsing chores. In 1927 Artie heard several "race" records, the kind then being made solely for distribution in black (or "colored," as they were then known) districts. 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's Savoy Ballroom to hear the great trumpet player in person. Back in Cleveland, Artie, now 17, won an essay-writing contest which took him out to Hollywood in 1928, where he ran into a couple of musicians he had known back in New Haven who were now working in Irving Aaronson's band. A year later, at the age of 19, Artie moved to Hollywood to join the Aaronson band.
Shortly afterwards, the Aaronson band spent the summer of 1930 in Chicago, where Artie "discovered a whole new world" (as he would much later write, in a semi-autobiographical book "The Trouble With Cinderella" first published in 1952) when he heard several recordings of some of the then avant-garde symphonic composers' work: Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Ravel, et al, whose work would eventually influence most of our contemporary jazz performers. This influence would soon surface in Shaw's own work when he began to use strings, woodwinds, etc. -- notably in a highly unusual album entitled MODERN MUSIC FOR CLARINET, selections of which were also featured in several of Shaw's Carnegie Hall concerts.
When the Aaronson band came to New York in 1930, 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. 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 a writer -- of books rather than music -- since there seemed to be no way at that time to make a decent living playing the kind of music that interested him.
In 1934 he returned to New York to pick up his formal education where it had been abruptly terminated when he left high school at 15, and resumed studio work to support himself. 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.")
Shaw could scarcely have known that within a short time he would make a hit record of a song called "Begin the Beguine," which he now jokingly refers 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!
The breakthrough hit record catapulted him into the ranks of top band leaders and he was immediately dubbed the new "King of Swing". Today, Shaw's recording of "Begin the Beguine" sells thousands and has become one of the best-selling records in history. Superstardom turned out to be a status that Shaw (as a compulsive perfectionist) found totally uncongenial. Within a year he abruptly took off for another respite from the music business, this time in Mexico. In March of 1940 he re-emerged with a recording of "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, 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.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the unpredictable Shaw quit the music business once again, this time to enlist in the U.S. Navy. 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). On returning to the U.S. -- after having undergone several near-miss bombing raids in Guadalcanal -- physically exhausted and emotionally depleted, he was given a medical discharge from the Navy. His troubled marriage to Betty Kern (the daughter of composer Jerome Kern) ended in divorce, and in 1944 Shaw 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.
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 THE 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 fifties, 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 despite the onslaught of Rock, MTV, and other such commercial phenomena.
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 SHOW: A LEGACY, which has also received rave reviews. Some of this music was re-issued on two double CD's by MusicMasters as ARTIE SHOW: THE LAST RECORDINGS, RARE AND UNRELEASED, and ARTIE SHOW: MORE LAST RECORDINGS, THE FINAL SESSIONS.
Artie Shaw packed his clarinet away once and for all in 1954. 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. 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, 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 refers to as "Southern California pickup-truck country."
Since then, aside from a brief venture into film distribution (1954 to 1956), and a number of appearances on television and radio talk shows, Artie Shaw has had very little to do with music or show business. He still gives occasional interviews on television, radio, and newspapers and lectures all over the United States. He still conducts seminars on literature, art, and the evolution of what is now known as the Big Band Era. He has given 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 has received Honorary Doctorates at California Lutheran University and the University of Arizona. His home contains 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.
Artie Shaw has been a nationally ranked precision marksman, an expert fly-fisherman, and for the past two decades has 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 hopes 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 is today 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 has received glowing reviews wherever it has been shown -- Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, Toronto, Boston, and on Cinemax -- as well as in England, where it ran twice on BBC. It has 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.
On first meeting Artie Shaw, young Wynton Marsalis remarked, "This man's got some history." Shaw is regarded by many as the finest and most innovative of all jazz clarinetists, a leader of several of the greatest musical aggregations ever assembled, and one of the most adventurous and accomplished figures in American music.
As Artie Shaw goes on into his nineties, he has also developed a crusty humor, as evidenced by an epitaph for himself he wrote for "Who's Who in America" a few years ago at the request of the editors: "He did the best he could with the material at hand." However, at a recent lecture to the music students of 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.'"