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Remembering Jazz great Artie Shaw (Pt. One)

Remembering Artie Shaw
Remembering Artie Shaw
album cover

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, and where at 14 he began to play the saxophone (and several months later the clarinet), and at 15 left home to play all over America, and meanwhile study 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.

End Part One