Artie Shaw: The Reluctant Jazz Star

Artie Shaw's ideas were often deemed too modern, and his temperament was ill-suited to the role of star. i i

hide captionArtie Shaw's ideas were often deemed too modern, and his temperament was ill-suited to the role of star.

John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images
Artie Shaw's ideas were often deemed too modern, and his temperament was ill-suited to the role of star.

Artie Shaw's ideas were often deemed too modern, and his temperament was ill-suited to the role of star.

John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Artie Shaw was a virtuoso clarinetist whose good looks and eight wives (including Lana Turner and Eva Gardner) made him a darling of the gossip page. He was also a bandleader extraordinaire and a modern instrumentalist who grew restless with the repetitive nature of popular dance music and uncomfortable with the spotlight. Just when his bands were at their most successful, he'd break them up. At the age of 44, Shaw left the music business to become a writer.

Artie Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on May 23, 1910, to poor Jewish immigrant parents. He grew up in New Haven, Conn. His father left and Shaw turned to music, taking up the alto saxophone at the age of 12. At 15, he was already a professional musician. Before he was 20, he'd discovered the music of Debussy and Stravinsky. At about the same time, he landed in New York City, where he was mentored by the legendary stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith.

Interlude In B-Flat

In 1936, just as swing was becoming a nationwide sensation, 26-year-old Artie Shaw formed his first band. It was made up of a jazz rhythm section, a string quartet and Shaw's clarinet. He'd been hired to play a short tune during a set change at a swing concert at New York's Imperial Theater. The piece he wrote for his unusual group, Interlude in B-Flat, created a sensation.

Shaw was invited to record the composition, but he was forced to expand his ensemble to compete with the big swing bands. The group's unusual sound and instrumentation failed to catch on, and Shaw disbanded it. A month later, he was back with a more straightforward swing band, and in 1938, Artie Shaw and His Orchestra recorded his first big hit, Begin the Beguine. It became a staple of the Swing Era and established Shaw as a contender for Benny Goodman's crown. Like baseball fans, avid listeners argued over which of the two was better. The supposed rivalry was stoked by both the media and the musicians' publicists.

Like Goodman, Shaw integrated his band, which became one of the first white groups to tour with a black singer. She was Billie Holiday. The country wasn't ready, and Holiday left because of the prejudice she experienced on the road.

Still, Shaw's orchestra became the most popular band in America and he sold millions of records. But the bandleader wasn't interested in commercial success, and said he got tired of "playing the same bloody pieces" over and over again.

Break Up Only To Make Up

Once again, Shaw disbanded his group, and this time headed for Mexico. He resurfaced in Hollywood and was featured in the Fred Astaire film Second Chorus. He also recorded his next big hit, Frenesi. That success forced Shaw to assemble another touring band. Out of this orchestra, the clarinetist distilled the first of a series of acclaimed small groups called The Gramercy Five.

But — you guessed it — Shaw broke up the orchestra, and he didn't form another band until 1942. He was in the U.S. Navy, and he entertained troops fighting in the Pacific.

After World War II, Shaw returned to the U.S. to lead some of the most modern groups of his career, one of which showcased virtuoso trumpeter Roy Eldridge. In 1949, Shaw's most experimental big band tackled the new jazz called bebop — and met with an underwhelming response from audiences. Soon after, Shaw was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was hunting down Communists in the entertainment industry.

Shaw was fed up. He made his last Gramercy Five recordings in 1954 before putting down his clarinet and leaving the country.

For Shaw, "playing the clarinet was only one manifestation of an overall thirst to learn about the world." He went on to become a writer, penning an acclaimed autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity. He also wrote four novels and a collection of short stories. Shaw re-formed his band in the early 1980s and became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got.

Shaw himself ran out of time on Dec. 30, 2004, dying of complications from diabetes. He was 94.

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