Artie Shaw: American clarinetist, composer, and bandleader (1910 - 2004) | Biography
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Artie Shaw
American clarinetist, composer, and bandleader

Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American clarinetist, composer, and bandleader
A.K.A. Arthur Jacob Arshawsky
Was Actor Film actor Bandmaster Musician Composer Conductor Clarinetist Jazz musician Saxophonist Music arranger Writer
From United States of America
Field Film, TV, Stage & Radio Literature Music
Gender male
Birth 23 May 1910, New York City, New York, USA
Death 30 December 2004, Thousand Oaks, Ventura County, California, USA (aged 94 years)
Star sign Gemini
Spouse: Ava GardnerLana TurnerKathleen WinsorDoris DowlingEvelyn Keyes
Children: Jonathan Shaw
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award 2004
Alto saxophone
Soprano saxophone
Artie Shaw
The details (from wikipedia)


Artie Shaw (born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky; May 23, 1910 – December 30, 2004) was an American clarinetist, composer, bandleader and actor. Also an author, Shaw wrote both fiction and non-fiction.

Widely regarded as "one of jazz's finest clarinetists", Shaw led one of the United States' most popular big bands in the late 1930s through the early 1940s. Though he had numerous hit records, he was perhaps best known for his 1938 recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Before the release of "Beguine," Shaw and his fledgling band had languished in relative obscurity for over two years and, after its release, he became a major pop artist within short order. The record eventually became one of the era's defining recordings. Musically restless, Shaw was also an early proponent of what became known much later as Third Stream music, which blended elements of classical and jazz forms and traditions. His music influenced other musicians, such as Monty Norman in England, with the vamp of the James Bond Theme, possibly influenced by 1938's "Nightmare".

Shaw also recorded with small jazz groups drawn from within the ranks of the various big bands he led. He served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1944, (during which time he led a morale-building band that toured the South Pacific amidst the chaos of World War II) and, following his discharge in 1944, he returned to lead a band through 1945. Following the breakup of that band, he began to focus on other interests and gradually withdrew from the world of being a professional musician and major celebrity, although he remained a force in popular music and jazz before retiring from music completely in 1954.

Early life

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born on May 23, 1910, in New York City, he was the son of Sarah (née Strauss) and Harold "Harry" Arshawsky, a dressmaker and photographer. The family was Jewish; his father was from Russia, his mother from Austria. Shaw grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where his natural introversion was deepened by local antisemitism. Shaw bought a saxophone by working in a grocery store and began learning the saxophone at 13. At 16, he switched to the clarinet and left home to tour with a band.


Returning to New York, he became a session musician through the early 1930s. From 1925–36, Shaw performed with many bands and orchestras; from 1926 to 1929, he worked in Cleveland and established a lasting reputation as music director and arranger for an orchestra led by the violinist Austin Wylie. In 1929 and 1930, he played with Irving Aaronson's Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music, which he would later incorporate in his arrangements. In 1932, Shaw joined the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra and made several recordings with the outfit including "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Fit as a Fiddle".

Leader of bands

In 1935, he first gained attention with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York. During the swing era, his big bands were popular with hits like "Begin the Beguine" (1938), "Stardust" (with a trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield), "Back Bay Shuffle", "Moonglow", "Rosalie" and "Frenesi". The show was well received, but was forced to dissolve in 1937 because his band's sound was not commercial. Shaw valued experimental and innovative music rather over dancing and love songs.

He was an innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation; "Interlude in B-flat", where he was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed Third Stream. His incorporation of stringed instruments could be attributed to the influence of the classical composer Igor Stravinsky.

In addition to hiring Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white band leader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated Southern U.S. However, after recording "Any Old Time", Holiday left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more "mainstream" singer.

Like his main rival, Benny Goodman, and other leaders of big bands, Shaw fashioned a smaller "band within the band" in 1940. He named it Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five after his home telephone exchange. Band pianist Johnny Guarnieri played harpsichord on the quintet recordings, and Al Hendrickson played electric guitar. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. In 1940, the original Gramercy Five pressed eight records, then Shaw dissolved the band in early 1941. The Gramercy Five's biggest hit was "Summit Ridge Drive", one of Shaw's million-selling singles. His last prewar band, organized in September 1941, included Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Max Kaminsky, Georgie Auld, Dave Tough, Jack Jenney, Ray Conniff and Guarnieri.

The long series of musical groups Shaw formed included Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, Mel Tormé, Buddy Rich, Dave Tough, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Dodo Marmarosa, and Ray Conniff. He used the morose "Nightmare", with its Hasidic nuances, as his theme rather than choosing a more accessible song. In a televised interview in the 1970s, Shaw derided the "asinine" songs of Tin Pan Alley that were the lifeblood of popular music and which bands, especially the most popular (such as his own) were compelled to play night after night. In 1994, he 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'".

Throughout his career, Shaw had a habit of forming bands, developing them according to his immediate aspirations, making a quick series of records, and then disbanding. He generally did not stick around long enough to reap his bands' successes through live performances of their recorded hits. Following the breakup of what was already his second band in 1939, he rarely toured at all and, if he did, his personal appearances were usually limited to long-term engagements in a single venue or bookings that did not require much traveling, unlike many bands of the era that traveled great distances doing seemingly endless strings of one-night engagements.

Radio days

Artie Shaw performs his "Concerto for Clarinet" in 1940.

Shaw did many big band remote broadcasts. Throughout the autumn and winter of 1938, he was often heard from the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln in New York. After touring in 1939, he led the house band at the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. He was the headliner of a radio series with comedian Robert Benchley as emcee. Shaw broadcast on CBS from November 20, 1938 until November 14, 1939. At the Cafe Rouge he quit his band that week and went to Mexico. The band continued without him into January but eventually broke up. After Shaw returned from Mexico in 1940, and still under contract to RCA Victor, he experimented with a group of session musicians in Hollywood, trying to combine strings and woodwinds with a jazz band. The result was the hit "Frenesi".

He was hired as bandleader for the Burns and Allen Show broadcast from Hollywood. He organized a band that was modeled after his swing band concept of the late 1930s with the addition of six violins, two violas, and one cello. The addition of a string section to a popular big band was not novel, as it had been done by Paul Whiteman and others since the 1920s. Shaw updated the idea with the music trends of the 1940s. Strings gave him a wider tonal palette and allowed him to concentrate on ballads rather than the fast dance songs of the swing era. Shaw was at or near the top of the list of virtuoso jazz bandleaders. The band was showcased on the Burns and Allen program every week.

In 1940, at the height of his popularity, the 30-year-old Shaw earned up to $60,000 per week. In contrast, George Burns and Gracie Allen were each making $5,000 per week during the year that Shaw and his orchestra provided the music for their radio show. He acted on the show as a love interest for Gracie Allen, although he disliked having to be a part of the celebrity culture of the period.

Shaw's contract was renewed for another 13 weeks when the program was moved to New York. Shaw broke up the Hollywood band, keeping a nucleus of seven musicians in addition to himself, and filled out the ensemble with New York musicians until March 1941. While taking a few months vacation in the spring of 1941 to reassess what to do next, Shaw recorded in another small group format with three horns and a four-man rhythm section with the addition of a dozen strings and. By September, he formed a big band with seven brass, five saxes, four rhythm, and fifteen strings. Remote broadcasts noted the band performing in good form and Shaw dazzling the crowd with his clarinet. On December 7, three months into the tour, the 31-piece band was in the midst of a matinee performance in Providence, Rhode Island, when he was given a note about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The note instructed him to tell military personnel to return to their bases. As the audience left, he knew the band was coming to an end.

War and after

Artie Shaw and The Rangers, 1943

During World War II, Shaw enlisted in the United States Navy and shortly after formed a band, which served in the Pacific theater (just as Glenn Miller's wartime band served in the UK and Europe). After 18 months playing for Navy personnel, (sometimes as many as four concerts a day in battle zones, including Guadalcanal), Shaw returned to the U.S. in a state of physical exhaustion and received a medical discharge. After the war, the popularity of big bands declined, as Crooners and Bebop began to dominate the charts.

Artie Shaw, ca 1947. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb

Shaw credited his time in the Navy from 1942 to 1944 as a period of renewed introspection. After his discharge, he entered psychoanalysis and began to withdraw from music in favor of a writing career. His autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, was published in 1952 (with later reprint editions in 1992 and 2001). Revealing downbeat elements of the music business, Shaw explained that "the trouble with Cinderella" is "nobody ever lives happily ever after." He turned to semi-autobiographical fiction with the three short novels in I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! (1965, reprinted in 1997), which prompted Terry Southern's comment: "Here is a deeply probing examination of the American marital scene. I flipped over it!" Shaw's short stories, including "Snow White in Harlem", were collected in The Best of Intentions and Other Stories (1989). He worked for years on his 1000-page autobiographical novel, The Education of Albie Snow, but the three-volume work remained unpublished.

After his discharge in 1944, he formed another band, this time what could be considered a modern big band in that it contained what is now considered the standard eight brass and five saxes. It did not include any strings and was based in Hollywood, California, where Shaw was living. He continued to record for RCA Victor, as he had before the war, and limited the band's personal appearances to military bases in California. In August 1945 his contract with RCA ended and he signed with an independent label, Musicraft. He made a few records for Musicraft before the band broke up, and all of the recordings for Musicraft from 1946 were staffed by top-notch session musicians. The big band was back in the studio, this time including strings. On these Musicraft recordings in 1946 Shaw featured the young singer Mel Tormé. On some of the sides, Torme was also featured with his vocal group the Meltones.

In July 1954, Shaw undertook a brief but historic Australian tour for promoter Lee Gordon on which he shared the bill with drummer Buddy Rich and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. After completing that tour Shaw stopped playing the clarinet, citing his own perfectionism, which, he later said, would have killed him. He explained to a reporter, "In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I'm not able to do that, and I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice." He spent the rest of the 1950s living in Europe.

In 1983, after years of prodding by Williard Alexander, the 73-year-old Shaw organized a band and selected clarinetist Dick Johnson as bandleader and soloist. The 58-year-old Johnson, an accomplished woodwind and saxophonist and native of Brockton, Massachusetts, was no stranger to jazz having recorded numerous albums of his own and had idolized Shaw's playing throughout his life. Shaw's music library, which was the product of his almost 20 years of activity in the music business, contained numerous arrangements of monumental status of popular music in addition to many original big band jazz compositions of the era. It was a collection of music arranged by some of the foremost composer/arrangers of the period, much of which was sketched out by Shaw himself and filled in and completed by his orchestrator/arranger collaborators, among them Jerry Gray, William Grant Still, Lennie Hayton, Ray Conniff, Eddie Sauter, and Jimmy Mundy, to name a few. Shaw rehearsed his new band, (based out of Boston, Massachusetts), and the band made its official debut on New Year's Eve 1984 at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, the same launching pad for many bands of the swing era decades earlier, when Shaw and his bands were in their prime. Shaw appeared with the band throughout its first few years, limiting his role to being its conductor and front man, while leaving the clarinet playing duties to Johnson. In 1985, another week-long series of strenuous rehearsals followed during which Shaw added more repertoire, including many arrangements and compositions that were from the later years of his career Shaw had never recorded. By 1987 though, Shaw was no longer touring with the band, quietly content that Johnson and the band kept true to Shaw's band spirit and vision. He would, however, show up on occasion "just to hear how things sounded".

Films and television

Shaw made several musical shorts in 1939 for Vitaphone and Paramount Pictures. He portrayed himself in the Fred Astaire film, Second Chorus (1940), which featured Shaw and his orchestra playing Concerto for Clarinet, and his 1940–41 Hollywood period Star Dust band can be heard throughout the soundtrack. The film garnered him two Oscar nominations for Best Score and Best Song ("Love of My Life"). He collaborated on the love song "If It's You", sung by Tony Martin in the Marx Brothers' film The Big Store (1941). In 1950, he was a mystery guest on What's My Line? and on August 31, 1952, was part of the panel. During the 1970s he made appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Many of his recordings have been used in motion pictures. His 1940 recording of "Stardust" was used in its entirety in the closing credits of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Martin Scorsese also used the Shaw theme song, "Nightmare", in his Academy Award-winning Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.

Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman interviewed Hoagy Carmichael, Doc Cheatham, and others including Shaw for her documentary film, Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet (1981) about Bix Beiderbecke, and afterward she went on to create an Academy Award-winning documentary, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985), featuring extensive interviews with Shaw, Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé, Helen Forrest, and other musicians, in addition to Shaw's eighth wife, actress Evelyn Keyes. The documentary ends with Shaw rehearsing his new band with co-leader Johnson present and rolls to credits perhaps quite fittingly with the band taking a final segue to Shaw's theme song Nightmare. In 2000, filmmaker Ken Burns interviewed Shaw at his home for his PBS documentary/miniseries Jazz where Shaw appears in multiple segments. His last major interview was in 2003, when he was interviewed by Russell Davies for the BBC Television documentary, Artie Shaw – Quest for Perfection. The documentary includes interviews with surviving members of his original bands, Johnson, and other music industry professionals.

Personal life

A self-proclaimed "very difficult man", Shaw was married eight times. Two marriages were annulled; the others ended in divorce: Jane Cairns (1932–33; annulled); Margaret Allen (1934–37); actress Lana Turner (1940); Betty Kern, the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern (1942–43); actress Ava Gardner (1945–46); Forever Amber author Kathleen Winsor (1946–48; annulled); actress Doris Dowling (1952–56), and actress Evelyn Keyes (1957–85). He had two sons, Steven Kern (by Betty Kern) and Jonathan Shaw (by Doris Dowling). Both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner later described Shaw as being extremely emotionally abusive. His controlling nature and incessant verbal abuse drove Turner to have a nervous breakdown, soon after which she divorced him. In 1940, before eloping with Lana Turner, Shaw briefly dated actress Judy Garland and, according to Tom Nolan's biography, had an affair with Lena Horne.

Apart from his interest in music, Shaw had a tremendous intellect and almost insatiable thirst for intellectual knowledge and literature. During his self-imposed "sabbaticals" from the music business, his interests included studying advanced mathematics, as cited in Karl Sabbagh's The Riemann Hypothesis.

In 1946, Shaw was present at a meeting of the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan, part of a core group of actors and artists who were trying to sway the organization away from Communism, presented an anti-Communist declaration which, if signed, was set to run in newspapers. There was bedlam as many rose to champion the communist cause, and Shaw began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution. In 1953, Shaw was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Council.

Shaw was also a precision marksman, ranking fourth in the United States in 1962, and an expert fly fisherman. In his later years, Shaw lived and wrote in the Newbury Park section of Thousand Oaks, California. He died on December 30, 2004, aged 94. According to his publicist, he had been "in ill health for some time, but I don't know the specific cause of death." In fact, Shaw had long been suffering from diabetes. In 2005, Shaw's eighth wife, Evelyn Keyes, filed suit, claiming she was entitled to one-half of Shaw's estate, pursuant to a contract to make a will between them. In July 2006, a Ventura, California, jury unanimously held that Keyes was entitled to almost one-half of Shaw's estate or $1,420,000. She died less than two years later from cancer.

Awards and honors

In 1980, Shaw donated his papers, most of which amounted to his music library of over 700 scores and parts and approximately 1,000 pieces of sheet music, to Boston University. In 1991, the collection was transferred to the School of Music of the University of Arizona in Tucson. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1938, Down Beat magazine readers voted Artie Shaw's the best swing band.

In response to Benny Goodman's nickname, the "King of Swing", Shaw's fans dubbed him the "King of the Clarinet". He felt the titles should be reversed. "Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music," he said.

Longtime Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard cited Shaw as his favorite clarinet player.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 28 Jun 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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