Listen to Renee Montagne's report.
The Reluctant 'King of Swing' Looks Back on Life on the Throne
Web Exclusive: Hear an extended version of the interview.
Listen to selections from Artie Shaw's Self Portrait CD set.
March 8, 2002 -- In his day, there was no bigger star in the music universe than Artie Shaw. The jazz clarinetist and bandleader's rendition of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" was one of the best-known songs of the 20th century. Shaw's recording of "Begin the Beguine" sold millions and helped him dethrone Benny Goodman as the "King of Swing."
"It became such a hit that it superseded anything that any band had ever had," Shaw tells Renée Montagne on Morning Edition. "It was the first time that a so-called swing band played something melodic and still gave it a beat."
Shaw, now 91, recently discussed his life and a newly issued CD box set called Self Portrait, consisting of songs he selected.
"Begin the Beguine" transformed the clarinet virtuoso into a pop star -- darkly handsome with squealing jitterbuggers in the audience and glamour girls on his arm. Among the string of women he married were movie stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. It was a world, he insists, not of his choosing, but hard to resist.
"You run into a party and (a) woman comes up to you. She's the most beautiful creature you ever saw -- Ava Gardner -- and says, 'I like you and why don't we get together?' What are you going to say, 'No'? You'd have to be an idiot. She was an incredible creature."
But Shaw was more at home in the jazz life. In the 1938 session that launched 'Begin the Beguine', he recorded another tune called 'Any Old Time', featuring Billie Holiday, who was little known at the time.
Shaw had persuaded Holiday to join his big band at a time when a black singer in a white band was shocking. "I knew that was going to be kind of scandalous, but she was a good singer," he says.
Shaw, who began recording in 1936, walked away from the business -- and his clarinet -- 18 years later. He says he didn't enjoy the life of a star and that his struggle for perfection was killing him.
Artie Shaw, circa 1994.
Photo: Chip Deffaa
"I was very uncomfortable," he explains. "I played the role called Artie Shaw. People (ask) me for autographs, so I (say), 'I got out of the Artie Shaw business about 50 years ago.' That's why I walked out. I walked out of the business at my peak. I quit."
Shaw insists that he doesn't wish to play the clarinet again, though he still describes the experience with awe. Pointing to an instrument on a shelf at his home, he says: "That's the clarinet I used to use... but it's just a piece of wood, you know, with holes in it and they put these clumsy keys on it and you're supposed to try to take that and manipulate it with throat muscles and chops... and try to make something happen that never happened before. And when you do, you never forget it. It beats sex, it beats anything... "
Previous NPR Coverage
Hear a Fresh Air review of Artie Shaw's Self Portrait CD set.
Hear an NPR 100 feature about the song "Stardust."
Hear an outtake about Shaw from Ken Burns' Jazz.
Discover more great jazz at NPRJazz.org.
Read an Artie Shaw biography on his official Web site.
Read about Shaw in Ken Burns' documentary Jazz.
See Artie Shaw album and track listings at his label, Bluebird Jazz.
Watch an excerpt of an interview with Shaw from his record label.