Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SHAW, Artie

(b Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, 23 May 1910, NYC; d 29 Dec. 2004) Clarinettist, bandleader, composer. He worked for Irving Aaronson, Red Nichols, Vincent Lopez and Roger Wolfe Kahn, and was then among the most successful freelances in the business, he quit music, but came back mid-'35 playing his own 'Interlude In B Flat' with a string quartet at a swing concert: the buzz encouraged him to form a band with the string quartet (with Jerry Gray on violin), rhythm section, one trumpet and one saxophone (Tony Pastor) and his clarinet; this band failed on the road. He formed another with a conventional swing band lineup; its first Brunswick recordings sounded like any other band of the era except for Shaw's clarinet, but became more ambitious with Shaw's own compositions: 'Cream Puff', 'The Chant', 'Non-Stop Flight', 'Nightmare' (became his theme) etc. He had promised to hire Billie Holiday as his vocalist; she was surprised when he kept his promise, and she was the first black girl singer with a white band, but meanwhile he switched to Victor's Bluebird label while she was still under contract to Brunswick, so there was only one recording with her, Shaw's tune 'Any Old Time'. Also from that first Bluebird recording session mid-'38 'Indian Love Call' (with a novelty vocal by Pastor) was a top ten hit; disc jockeys turned it over and found Gray's arrangement of Cole Porter's 'Begin The Beguine', which became one of the biggest hits of the whole era: the band went from nowhere to become one of the most popular of all (the Billy Cotton record of 'Beguine' in the UK was a straight cover of Gray's arrangement).

There were fierce arguments between fans of Shaw and Benny Goodman; Shaw had a woody, prettier tone, more musical flexibility and curiosity, but who was the better jazz soloist is still an argument better left unopened. The great Duke Ellington clarinettist Barney Bigard described Shaw as the greatest ever; reedmen Phil Woods and John Carter named him as a primary influence.

Georgie Auld and Buddy Rich joined the band '39, but Shaw, mercurial, strong-minded and critical of the music business, quit at the height of success late that year and went to Mexico. He came back '40-1 with a new band and recorded 'Frenesi', arranged by composer William Grant Still (b 11 May 1895, Woodville MS; d 3 December 1978, Los Angeles). To the conventional 15-piece band were added French horn, flute, oboe, bass clarinet and 13 strings; it was a bigger hit than 'Beguine'. (Shaw also had a hit with two-part 'The Blues', arranged by Stills from his own 'Lenox Avenue Suite'.) His band-within-a-band the Gramercy Five '40 had Billy Butterfield on trumpet, Nick Fatool on drums, Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord ('Summit Ridge Drive' was a hit). Shaw exhausted himself and fell ill leading a US Navy band '43-4. The Gramercy Five '45 included Roy Eldridge, with Dodo Marmarosa on piano. Shaw recorded for Musicraft '46, Decca '49-53, Verve/Clef '54 (reviving the small group with Hank Jones on piano; the very last recordings on MusicMaster CDs). Then he made good his threat to quit music entirely and put down his horn for ever (Goodman was appalled).

Over 50 hits '36-52 included instrumentals 'Back Bay Shuffle' and 'Traffic Jam' (featuring Rich); 'They Say' and 'Thanks For Ev'rything' (vocals by Helen Forrest); an Artie Shaw album of five '78s (none of the ten sides single hits) was effectively a hit in the singles market '39, which indicates how much the public valued Shaw's music. Later hits '41-2 were 'Stardust' (arranged by Lennie Hayton, with solos by Butterfield, Shaw, trombonist Jack Jenney), 'Dancing In The Dark' and 'Concerto For Clarinet' (the latter Shaw composition on a two-sided 12-inch 78), 'Blues In The Night' and 'St James' Infirmary' (vocals and trumpet by Hot Lips Page). Later hits had vocals by Mel Tormé and Kitty Kallen. In a Billboard disc jockey poll '56, Shaw's 'Stardust' was named all-time favourite record, 'Begin The Beguine' no. 3, 'Summit Ridge Drive' no. 8, 'Frenesi' no. 15, 'Dancing In The Dark' no. 25. His band was always one of the best because it didn't sound like all the others, the sound balance perfectly adjusted and the arrangements compact. But 'Traffic Jam' was junk, and 'Concerto For Clarinet' was a Hollywood idea of a concerto; in fact it was featured in a film, Second Chorus. (But Franklin Cohen, the principle clarinettist of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, planning to play the Concerto, listened to Shaw's recording of it and proclaimed him the greatest player he had ever heard. 'It's hard to play the way he plays. It's not an overblown orchestral style. He makes so many incredible shadings' (quoted by John S. Wilson in The New York Times). The '41-2 band with strings at least had them strings integrated into the music (Tommy Dorsey said that his strings were a tax dodge), and Shaw's ballad arrangements ('Adios', 'Yesterdays', 'My Heart Stood Still') had some muscle. He was several years ahead of Claude Thornhill in using a French horn (as on 'April In Paris'). Among the best records were 'Chantez Les Bas' (with Butterfield sounding through the strings), 'Pastel Blue' (like 'Nightmare' more than a mood piece), Butterfield and Jenney on 'The Blues', Roy Eldridge on 'Little Jazz', Benny Carter and J. C. Higginbotham on 'I'm Confessin' '.

Shaw became a farmer, moved to Spain and became a translator, then a theatrical producer; he published two collections of short stories, I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! and The Best Of Intentions, and a memoir The Trouble With Cinderella. He worked for many years on an autobiographical novel, The Education Of Albie Snow, still unpublished. He was married eight times, his wives including Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Kathleen Winsor (a novelist famous for a best-selling bodice-ripper, Forever Amber). He re-created his classic band for Capitol '63 and conducted a 16-piece band at NYC's Blue Note '83 (led by Dick Johnson), but did not play himself. (First-class clarinetist and leader Dick Johnson b 1 December 1925, d 10 January 2009.)

All the early Brunswick recordings are available on Hep CDs In The Beginning, The Chant and Non-Stop Flight. Hep has also issued Evensong, a compilation of tracks by the '40-2 band, and The Artistry of Artie Shaw, reissuing classical pieces recorded in 1949 with the New Music Quartet and a string ensemble, plus tracks by the last edition of the Gramercy Five. RCA/BMG finally issued a decent 5-CD set in 2001 called Self Portrait, the tracks chosen by Shaw himself, which got rave reviews. Vladimir Simosko's Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography And Discography was published by Scarecrow Press 2000; Brigitte Berman's documentary film Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got won an Oscar in 1985.