Artie Shaw - Biography

Artie Shaw was one of the greatest clarinetists in the history of jazz. A Swing Era giant and innovator who led a succession of popular orchestras, Shaw was also a self-professed “very difficult man” who walked away from music when he was in his mid-forties, never to return. 

Artie Shaw was born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City on May 23, 1910, and grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. He began learning the saxophone as a teenager. As he told an interviewer for Ken Burns’ PBS jazz project, “My father'd left home and I didn't like my life very much. I didn't like school, I didn't like anything. So it was a choice between getting a machine gun or an instrument. Luckily I found an instrument.”  He was a very fast learner, and began to perform with Johnny Cavallaro's dance band in 1925. Roaming around the country, he ended up in Austin Wylie's band in Cleveland from 1927 to 1929 before becoming one of Irving Aaronson's Commanders. After a tour with Aaronson that included his first trip to Hollywood , Shaw went to New York. His skill quickly made him an in-demand studio musician, and he landed a position with the CBS Radio Orchestra. “They used the best musicians in New York,” he later said, “for some of the worst music.” 

In the midst of the Great Depression, Shaw staged the first of his many self-imposed exiles from music, going to a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where he tried to write a book. But his money soon ran out, so he returned to New York by 1934. Working in studio and radio bands, he was often with Benny Goodman in the reed section. Their rivalry, which would be one of the ongoing stories of the swing era ("Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music," Shaw said), began here.

Shaw’s first big breakthrough as a bandleader came at a May 1936 big band concert in New York. He surprised the audience with "Interlude in B-flat" for clarinet and string quartet, along with a small rhythm section. Later he recalled that "Nobody had ever done that, sort of a jazz chamber-music thing." The crowd loved it, and because they hadn’t prepared any other music, the band repeated the piece. On the strength of this performance, Shaw was urged to assemble a band. He did so promptly on discovering it was a way to make some quick money and continue his education. His first orchestra was an expanded edition of the concert ensemble, featuring his clarinet with one trumpet and one sax, strings, and a rhythm section. He quickly learned that strings were a problem on the road where audiences wanted more overtly swinging music. Shaw then put together a band using the same instrumental lineup as the Goodman group. Originally known on records as just “Art Shaw,” he became Artie Shaw in time for the orchestra’s massive success with "Begin the Beguine" in the fall of 1938. As the group developed during an extended ballroom gig in Boston, the concept of the music shifted to swinging renditions of popular songs by the likes of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. Success bred difficulties for Shaw. Not a man to suffer fools gladly, Shaw spent the next few years playing his hit on what must have seemed like every stage in America, only to rail at his fans as ‘morons’ in an interview, and then walk away from the group during a New York engagement with millions of dollars in bookings at stake. "I wanted to resign from the planet, not just music," he later said. "It stopped being fun with success. Money got in the way ... I got miserable when I became a commodity." 

But he owed more recordings to RCA on his contract, so after a few months in Acapulco he went to Los Angeles and put together a studio band that included 13 strings. One of the pieces they waxed was “Frenesi,” based on a melody he’d heard on the beach. Shaw had another huge hit on his hands, practically the last thing he wanted. Once again, he put together an orchestra to take on the road. With solo stars like pianist Johnny Guarnieri, tenor saxist Georgie Auld, trumpeters Billy Butterfield, and later in 1941, Hot Lips Page, Shaw’s third big band is remembered for an exquisite version of “Stardust” as well as the Shaw showpiece, “Concerto For Clarinet.” This time, he also showcased a small combo out of the larger group, which he called the Gramercy Five. With Guarnieri on harpsichord, the quintet was another of Shaw’s successes when they hit it big with the million-selling "Summit Ridge Drive."

Shaw enlisted in the Navy in December 1941. He pulled a few strings and got the Secretary of the Navy’s permission to select the members of a band to perform in the Pacific theatre. Top musicians including Claude Thornhill, Dave Tough and Max Kaminsky were in the group, which worked tirelessly to entertain troops until 1944 when it was dissolved. Shaw, with a medical discharge, returned to Hollywood to put together another big band. Initially featuring trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and guitarist Barney Kessel, the orchestra played charts by Jimmy Mundy,  Eddie Sauter, Ray Conniff and others. The Gramercy Five was revived as well. But as Robert Lewis Taylor once observed in The New Yorker, in “the general period until 1954, Shaw sifted in and out of music like a reprise. He worked up a number of fine bands, but scuttled them quickly when they grew popular; he felt crushed by success and was angered by adulation." In a complaint that would be echoed by more than one superstar, in 1994 Shaw told Frank Prial of 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.'”

After announcing his retirement at a March club engagement, Shaw made his last recordings for Clef in June, 1954, with the final edition of the Gramercy Five. He didn’t return to the stage until he was convinced to front (but not play in) a “ghost” band recreating the original arrangements. He soon tired of the act and left the band on its own after a year or so.

Shaw had always wanted to write. An acclaimed autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella, had appeared in 1952. A collection of novellas, titled I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! and another of short stories called The Best of Intentions, were later published. A precision marksman and expert fly fisherman, Shaw also raised cattle and worked as a film producer and distributor. Artie Shaw died at his longtime home in Newbury Park, California on December 30, 2004.

Shaw, whose  personal life was famously tangled, was married eight times. Among his wives were Elizabeth Kern (daughter of the composer Jerome Kern), a trio of movie stars (Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes) and Kathleen Winsor, author of the popular Forties novel Forever Amber. The public’s interest in this fascinatingly complex individual persists, as evidenced by Tom Nolan’s 2010 biography Three Chords For Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw. But it’s mostly for his music that Shaw will be remembered. In 2001, he was asked by RCA Victor to program a retrospective boxed set of his recordings. Self Portrait featured 95 tracks with commentary by the then 91-year old Shaw, who wrote with great modesty that “it began to dawn on me that whether I realized it or not I'd created a good-sized chunk of durable Americana. Something lasting."

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