DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This weekend marks the hundredth birthday of bandleader and clarinet player Artie Shaw, one of the true jazz greats. In the 1930s and '40s, his band ranked in popularity with the Goodman, Dorsey and Miller bands.
(Soundbite of song, "Begin the Beguine")
BIANCULLI: The Shaw band made one of its most popular records at its first recording sessions in 1938. It was a song by Cole Porter called "Begin the Beguine." Artie Shaw began his career playing with dance bands. He grew contemptuous of the bands' crowd-pleasing antics and their trite music. When he organized his own big band in 1938, he rejected many of the pop tunes that had become dance-band staples. He instead created a repertoire of original compositions, while also performing song from composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
His huge popular success brought unexpected torments, including a reluctance to pander to audiences. And he quit the music business several times, sometimes for decades at a stretch.
No matter how many times I hear "Begin the Beguine," it makes me smile. But it turns out that wasnt Artie Shaw's reaction. When Terry Gross spoke with him in 1985, and played him a recording of his most famous song, he winced. Terry asked him why.
Mr. ARTIE SHAW (Jazz Clarinetist/Big Band Leader): Well, because I've played that thing probably - I dont know how thousands of times by now. And it's got to the point where it's fine to have a hit record, it pays rent, but it can drive you crazy, like an actor playing the same part. You know, a lot of actors don't mind that, but it can drive you nuts. I mean Bogart became a caricature of Bogart after a while. And I get tired of that. I don't like being stereotyped.
So I made maybe 500 records why "Begin the Beguine?" All right, it's a good piece, a good arrangement. But my God, I don't want to be characterized as only "Begin the Beguine." Thats what people seem to think, is he alive or dead?
TERRY GROSS, host:
It became the song that you were probably most associated with. How did you choose it? How did you choose to record? It wasnt a popular song till you made it.
Mr. SHAW: No it was a flop. It was one of Cole Porter's few flop tunes and from one of his very few flop shows, "Jubilee." I happened to get to the theater on Friday, the show closed Saturday. And I just heard that tune and it was done in a kind of a Latin beat. And I liked the melody. It was a hell of a good song, it still is. And very big departure from most popular songs of those days, which are eight-eight-bridge and eight, or eight-eight and then eight-eight; I mean one-two, one-two.
So I heard the tune and I came back and I was looking for an identity for the band. I told you we were looking for good songs from sophisticated songwriters. So I said to Jerry Gray, let's do "Begin the Beguine." He didnt know what the tune was. We got a copy and we sat down and we worked out the arrangement that everybody now knows. And I had no idea it was going to zoom. The other side of a record that we thought was going to be the big one.
It's always been true. "Fantasy" was the other side of a record we thought was going to be the big one. Nobody knows whats going to be the hit.
GROSS: The early bands that you played with were bands that you called entertaining bands, like...
Mr. SHAW: That's all there was. There were no jazz bands then that you could make a living in. I mean if you were lucky enough to be black you could play jazz, cause thats the only music they had in the ghettos. But I was playing in the white world. And in the white world there was no room play to jazz and make a living.
So I ended up at the best jobs there were - studio work. And there it got be utterly incredible. You were playing things like "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round," the "Lucky Strike Hit Parade." It was scary. You're playing "Is It True What They Say About Dixie" for 13 weeks in a row. That can be enough to drive any halfway decent musician clear out of his head.
GROSS: You had said that when you were playing for the entertaining bands that you started to really hate the whole concept of showmanship.
Mr. SHAW: I still do.
GROSS: What were the kinds of showmanship antics that people in the band were called in on to perform?
Mr. SHAW: Glen Miller's band waving the trombones around from side-to-side as they played, saxophonists holding their instruments up in the air and doing, you know, doing everything but playing serious music.
The guys in my band - one night I came back to the band. I'd left them for about three weeks. They were out on the road and they were playing a tune that I wrote for the band called - and arrangement I made called "Lady Be Good." At the end of the last chorus - the last chorus, the band does something; the saxophonists do a fast kind of whinny trill. And the guys for kicks were holding their horns up and holding their horns up, and the trombones are doing it. And I looked at them and I was appalled.
I said what are you guys doing? They said, oh, it's for fun. I said the audience doesnt know its fun. They think you're doing showmanship. And if we have to do showmanship that means we're very insecure about the music. Sit down and respect what you do. If you dont, they won't. And they heard that.
GROSS: When you finally assembled a big band of your own - and Im referring now to the second big band, after the one with the string quartet in it - what did you do with that band to differentiate yourself from the kinds of pop bands that you were bored and disenchanted with?
Mr. SHAW: Yeah, thats a reasonable question. It's got a reasonable answer. All right, we had a big band. Most of the then-big bands that were playing what they thought was jazz were playing pretty much "Ida," "Avalon," whatever those tunes - "Thats A Plenty," "King Porter Stomp," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - all the so-called jazz literature.
I decided that there were some great compositions being written by American popular composers, like Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rogers - name it, these were the great composers in America. And they had written at a level of sophistication for the musical comedy, which wasnt, quote, "dance music," but it repertory. You know, music that had to do with advancing the cause of a book or a story.
So I found songs like "Beguine," songs like, well, I dont know, "Yesterdays" of Kern's...
Mr. SHAW: ..."What is This Thing Called Love," all of that repertory. I decided to play the best music written by the best American composers, and instead of imposing a, quote, "style," end quote, on it, play the piece in the manner that best enhanced that particular piece in the way that the composer might not have realized he had written.
I tell my audiences now: We play "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise." That was a piece written for an operetta called "New Moon," Sigmund Romberg. I knew Rommy. He was a nice guy and he was a big, lusty Viennese guy who wrote American music. He came over here when he was young man. He learned to write the American popular idiom, but he was writing operetta. And we wrote the piece. We played it in a quite different manner. And when Rommy heard it, he called me up. He said, Artie, I think I like it almost better than the way I wrote it. Which I considered a high compliment from him because he was a scrupulous craftsman.
GROSS: My guest is Artie Shaw.
When you were leading a jazz band, the bands were still pretty segregated. There were black bands and white bands.
Mr. SHAW: Oh, yeah. They even had in New York City there was a local Union 802, white. Then there was a Harlem union for blacks. There was no way if you could mix, the only thing you could do on records now and then you'd play with a black guy. I'd get on a record, there would be Coleman Hawkins there or Lester, or whoever - Cozy Cole playing drums. Rarely was there a white - well, there were no black band - black playing with white musicians.
Matter of fact, when I hired Billie Holiday, boy, was that not a scandal. It was amazing. I must have been very na�ve or else I had my head buried in what I was doing. I had tunnel vision.
When I hired her, I hired her because she was sincerely, for me, a sincere attempt to get the best singer I could get. But she joined the band and it was a very, very strange experience.
Ill tell you another story you won't believe. This is in a documentary film that some woman did about me, a woman named Bridget Berman. It's a film called "Artie Shaw: Cole and Time Is All You've Got(ph)," which is a quote from one of our interviews. At the time I heard Lips Page - Hot Lips Page for the band. That was 1941 or something like that; just before World War II, before Pearl Harbor, we were supposed to do a very lucrative tour of the South.
My agent gave me the figures and times and so on. It sounded okay so I signed contracts. He came back a couple of weeks later, very, very pale. He said I dont know what we're going to be about this. Artie, we're in trouble. I dont think they're going to accept what you're doing.
I said what are you talking? He said, well, they want to cancel the tour. I said why? He said, well, you got Lips Page in there. They want you to put a white guy in there. I said forget it, then they can tell me what kind of a band Ill have. This is my band. They want to hire us, they take what I got.
So he went away very - he's chagrined because there was a lot of money in it. Came back about three or four days later, he said I think I got it solved. He said I talked to someone. One guy came up with a suggestion that could solve it. I said whats that?
He says you can play the tour, use Lips Page, but he can't sit nearer than 15 feet from the nearest man in the band.
I said you mean, I'm going to have three trumpet players over in one place with the band, and he's going to sit in a little chair all by himself way over there, 20 feet away? Yeah. I said forget the whole tour. We canceled the tour. You believe that? That's only, what, 40 years ago, 40-few years ago. We made some strides.
GROSS: Well, when you hired Billie Holiday, she was, I believe, the first black singer to perform with a white band.
Mr. SHAW: Well, to work in a white band, certainly, sure, as a member of the band. I didn't she didn't come out a specialty act. I mean, when Benny Goodman had, say, Lionel and Teddy Wilson, they came out as a separate thing. They weren't in the band. When I had Lips Page, he sat in the band. Roy Eldridge was in the band. I had Zutty Singleton in my band in 1937. Why, that was unheard of. We played the Million Dollar Pier. People said isn't he a black man? I said, well, he's hardly that tan. But it was very, very nip and tuck. People used to be very angry at it.
GROSS: Were there places you couldn't play with Billie Holiday?
Mr. SHAW: No, no. We went to the South. That was difficult because Billie had a short fuse, and people would say things about it, and she would blow. So I always had a guy ready to spirit her away, put her in a bus and get her out because she would blow. She'd call a guy every kind of MF you could think of, and they didn't take that too well.
See, they would refer to her as they would say have the nigger wench since another song. I couldn't believe my ears. I said, you mean Billie sing you another song? No, the nigger wench. That's what they thought of her as.
GROSS: You enlisted during World War II and ended up playing with your band.
Mr. SHAW: To the Pacific.
GROSS: On the Pacific front, yeah. Did you know when you enlisted that you'd be mostly performing? Was that the arrangement that was made?
Mr. SHAW: No, I had no idea what I was going to be doing. I was on the stage in Providence, Rhode Island, when I went back in the wings while a dance act went on. We were doing an hour show, as they call it.
And the stagehands' radio was on, and we were hearing an hysterical announcer talking about the Japs having bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, Pearl Harbor, it sounded like some sleepy little atoll out there in the South Pacific. I didn't know that Pearl Harbor was our principal naval base in the Pacific.
But he sounded hysterical, and World War II had begun. I had to go back out on stage. Just before I went out, I got a note from the manager: Please announce that all military personnel is to report to its bases immediately.
This was right near Newport, where there was a sub base, a naval base, an Air Force base, all that. So I went out onstage and did that, and about three-quarters of the house got empty. And as the band started playing, I turned to Les Robinson(ph), who was in the first row of saxophone players, he was the lead. And I said, Les, pass the word, two weeks' notice. Total impulse.
And three weeks later, I was down on Church Street enlisting in the Navy. I just felt that there was no place for me as a civilian. This was the big experience of my life. Had to be part of it. I joined the Navy, and I went in as an apprentice seaman, as low as you could get.
I could have become a commander if I had wanted to. I didn't know that. I knew Forrestal, who was the undersecretary, and when I joined up, I had seen him, and he said if you get in trouble, come see me.
Well, after about six or eight weeks of minesweeper duty off Staten Island, this, that and the other, I found myself doing what an apprentice seaman does. I thought the Navy would have enough rationality to put me into the job I could do best for them and then give me whatever rate or rank I needed for that.
I was very naive, you know. I didn't realize that the military service doesn't operate rationally. They looked at one stripe or no stripe, and they gave me a swab, swab the deck, sailor. Well, that's kind of stupid. I was building shelves under a stairway to put mops and buckets on.
So I went to see Forrestal, I went AWL(ph), went down there and saw him in his office, and he laughed, and he said all right, I'll put you in touch with somebody. And I got in touch with the head of enlisted men, a man named Admiral Bledsoe(ph). And he gave me carte blanche to get a band together. He said what do you want to do? I said what do you want me to do? He said get a band together. That's the best you can do for us.
Where? I said where's the Navy? He said in the Pacific. I said okay. So he gave me total carte blanche, and I enlisted a bunch of guys who were 1-A and got the best band that ever was. That band was a tremendous band. We won the Esquire poll and all that.
We traveled all over the Pacific, in places where the Bob Hopes couldn't go. We went to forward areas. We were on battleships. We were on aircraft carriers. We were all over the place.
GROSS: In the '30s and early '40s, a common question that people would ask was: Who do you think is really the king? Is it Artie or Benny? Were you aware of that whole public competition between you and Benny?
Mr. SHAW: How could I not be? I was part of that controversy. It makes no bloody sense. We weren't doing the same things. The fact is we played a clarinet. We each played a clarinet. But the music was different.
As a matter of fact, I'll tell you an interesting little anecdote. I had occasion to talk to Benny about something once that I wanted to do, and I needed him, and I needed the Dorsey people and I needed the Stan Kenton and Guy Lombardo and all of the big-band leaders. And I got the okay from everybody.
Goodman didn't want to do it, and he kept asking me questions about clarinet players. What do you think about so-and-so? What do you think about this guy, that guy? I said this guy is too schmaltzy, that guy is too rigid, knowing what he expected me to say, and I was zinging him a little bit.
And so I said finally, Benny, you're too hung up on the clarinet. And he looked at me, and he says, that's what we do, isn't it? I said no, I'm trying to play music. I'm not interested in clarinets. It's a means. It's an instrument. You use an instrument to do something with.
And I saw a tiny light bulb go on in his eyes. I don't think he ever seriously considered the idea that the clarinet was a means, not an end.
BIANCULLI: Artie Shaw, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. The current edition of the PRI show, "Riverwalk Jazz," also is devoted to Artie Shaw. You can find a link to that program on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also hear some more Artie Shaw performances, including the song "Any Old Time," featuring Billie Holiday.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on a new documentary called "The Oath." This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.