|100 Candles for Artie|
|Written by Athan Maroulis|
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The power of accurate observation is called cynicism by those who have not got it.” He might as well have been talking about Artie Shaw (no relation), who was one complicated, observant, acerbic, and brilliant son of a bitch. Never fearful of speaking his mind, regularly calling ‘em as he saw ‘em, Artie once labeled Glenn Miller “the Lawrence Welk of jazz” and in 1938 referred to his own fans as “a bunch of morons.” This writer usually has a very low tolerance for overly opinionated artists; rare and worthy exceptions include Orson Welles chatting about film, Raymond Chandler on writing, Edward Hopper on painting, Marlene Dietrich on Marlene Dietrich, or the great clarinetist Artie Shaw talking about jazz (or, for that matter, pretty much anything). May marked the centennial of his birth, and while it’s a bit surprising that the only written words I’ve seen about it are those before you, it is nevertheless a occasion that should be remembered.
Fifty-plus years ago Artie put his clarinet in its case and never again played in public or on record, stating, “I did all you can do with a clarinet. Any more would have been less.” Hard to imagine, but his standards were high, and the day came when he realized it would have been sheer monotony for him to continue. His mastery of the clarinet came with a tone expressively emotive and human; his harsh words are in such contrast that one almost cannot believe such extremes come from the same tongue. All big bands had their own theme song, and Shaw chose his to be a haunting dirge he’d penned called “Nightmare”—this in and of itself says something about 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.
The family eventually moved to New Haven, CT, where the father simply abandoned them, never to return. At around age 13, Arthur heard a vaudeville saxophonist play a tune called “Dreamy Melody,” inspiring him to scrape the money together to buy his own instrument. Self-taught, the youngster excelled on the saxophone, enabling him to take part in both school and local bands before intentionally getting himself expelled to pursue the life of a professional musician. Landing work with a series of touring bands, Artie Shaw (who altered his name around this time) quickly realized the innumerable possibilities that exist within the idiom known as jazz, especially after hearing records by the great Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), as well as the pioneering cornetist Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer (1901-1956). 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.
Although he had already added the clarinet to his resume, by 1929 Shaw was on the West Coast playing tenor saxophone for Irving Aaronson’s Commanders. Shaw would eventually head to New York City where he honed his skills as an arranger while also becoming a highly sought-after session musician. Some of his session peers included such future luminaries as trombonist Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956), clarinetist Benny Goodman (1909-1986), and the tragic trumpeter Bunny Berigan (1908-1942). During this time Shaw’s growing disdain for the music business prompted the first of many decisions to simply walk away.
George T. Simon, in his definitive book The Big Bands, once said of him, “Artie Shaw was a searcher…He was a thinker, a much deeper thinker than most bandleaders, a man concerned and constantly analyzing his place.” In 1934 during the lean Depression years, Shaw passed up regular lucrative session work and instead purchased a farm in scenic Bucks County, PA, intent on writing a book about Bix Beiderbecke. Decidedly unhappy with the results, after a year Artie tore the book to shreds and returned to New York City to resume his career as a session player.
This would have been a fine existence for most musicians, but not for the driven, overachieving Artie Shaw, and it soon changed. An event that is often cited as the catalyst for the national Swing craze occurred on August 21, 1935 when Shaw’s former session peer 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. Then another monumental moment in jazz history occurred when promoter Joe Helbock planned the first true jazz concert on May 24, 1936, billing it as the “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 assembled a memorable band that united a string quartet with a rhythm section led by his clarinet—a unique presentation that was intentionally different than the brass-heavy bands on the bill. That night Arthur Shaw’s Swing String Ensemble performed a song Shaw had written especially for the evening called “Interlude in B-Flat.” Upon completion of the number, the crowd unexpectedly roared for an encore; since the band had only rehearsed that one piece, they simply did it again. Not only was the crowd impressed, so too was Tommy Rockwell, head of the Rockwell-O’Keefe booking agency; soon after he would convince Artie to form a working band. Thus, Artie Shaw and His Orchestra were born, debuting at the Lexington Hotel in New York City in the summer of 1936. From that point and through the following year the band continued to tour as well record for the Brunswick label with minimal results. Shaw once reflected on this time by saying, “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 (1915-1976), took some time to analyze the band’s future before accepting an extended engagement in Boston at the Roseland State Ballroom in March of 1938. There, the duo diligently sculpted the sound of the band, adding sharp new arrangements and bringing in the best sidemen available. One song added to their repertoire was Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” the first song they would record for the Bluebird label, where Shaw prospered from 1938 to 1945. Recorded on July 24, 1938, the dreamy “Begin the Beguine,” the B-side of “Indian Love Call,” would mark Shaw’s first #1 hit recording and would go on to become a true staple of the Swing Era. Interestingly enough, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) waxed her lone recording with the band during the same session, this on the Shaw penned tune “Any Old Time.” Due to Shaw’s daring choice, 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 time with the band lasted all of nine months, quitting after she could no longer endure nightly racist remarks from audience members. Shaw was carrying two female vocalists at the time with both Holiday and the underrated Helen Forrest (1917-1999), a native of Atlantic City. For Shaw, his overnight celebrity status was both a blessing and a curse, once stating, “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 his first of many collapses, quite possibly due to the strain of maintaining the rigid touring schedule necessary to support a hit record. Shaw would eventually recover and the hit recordings continued, supported by numerous film and radio appearances, magazine cover stories and the very public life that came with this level of success which he came to despise. Shaw barked, "I hate the music business. I'm not interested in giving the public what they want...Autograph hunters? The hell with that. They aren't listening. Only gawking. My friends, my advisors tell me that I'm a damned fool. 'Look here,' they shout at me. 'You can't do that. These people made you.' You want to know my answer? I tell them if I was made by a bunch of morons, that's just too bad.” On the song that put his career in high gear, the surly Shaw further stated, “For example ‘Begin the Beguine,’ which 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.”
Shaw, who regularly referred to music industry executives as “thieves,” was later asked what is was like to be a working successful musician during the 1930s and 1940s. 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, this time associated with 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 inside New York City’s Pennsylvania Hotel. Breaking up that highly successful band, he traveled to a small town in Mexico seeking an escape. 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 #1 hit in 1940. With this orchestra he recorded on October 7th the seminal version of “Stardust,” which to this day stands as one of the finest renditions of this oft-interpreted tune. In addition to that orchestra, he formed a new project called Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five, a small combo that allowed Shaw to experiment outside of a large band. 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, fully intent on seeing action, while the Navy wanted him to make music. Shaw put together a few different bands that would perform throughout the Pacific for the troops, at times even during bombings and attacks. This took its toll on Shaw, who was honorably discharged in early 1944. For the next ten years Shaw tried a number of different creative avenues including studying classical music on both clarinet and guitar, which he put to use in a chamber jazz ensemble. Shaw continued his insatiable search for musical inspiration, flirting with various jazz styles that included both Afro-Cuban and bebop. Then at age 43 in 1954, he decided to announce his official retirement, simply stating that "I saw death approaching.”
Artie was bored and tired, so he 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 author more books. In addition to that, Shaw spent the next five decades in a number of pursuits including farming, lecturing on the college circuit, film distribution, fishing, 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 called “The King of Swing.” This was countered by Shaw’s fans who started referring 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 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.”
His eight marriages, one of Shaw’s most curious legacies, were to some of the most desirable women of his generation. The list includes actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, Evelyn Keyes (which lasted longer than all of the others combined), Elizabeth Kern (daughter of composer Jerome Kern) and author Kathleen Winsor. Most of these nuptials lasted for 2 years or less. Shaw often spoke publicly of the fact that at least a few of them were, in his words, “dimwits.” Once Shaw sarcastically said, “You have no idea of the women I didn’t marry,” which was rumored to include other starlets such as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable. Shaw had two sons, one with Dowling and one with Kern, yet apparently had little or no relationship with either of them.
In the final decade of his life, I finally got the courage up to write Artie Shaw, this around the time he was interviewed for the fine Ken Burns documentary Jazz. That highly-recommended film finds Artie Shaw near age 90, yet sharp as ever and full of spleen. Within the trappings of a typical fan letter I mentioned how meaningful his music has been to me over the years, and while fully knowing his disdain for autograph seekers, I took a chance in requesting one. Much to my surprise, a few weeks later I got a postcard, one of those blank pre-stamped ones from the post office, and to my delight in black marker appeared the name “Artie Shaw.” The eclectic and electric Artie Shaw passed away on December 30, 2004 at the age of 94. Late in life he was asked who he thought was the best, and 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."
Give a listen—he might have been right.
Athan Maroulis is a native of Brooklyn, NY where he currently resides and poses as a writer, music archivist, singer, film buff and owner of the vintage label Sepiatone Records. Formerly the head of LA-based Stardust Records, Athan can be found on most Sundays driving around in his 1961 Dodge Polara pretending Natalie Wood is next to him.