Artie Shaw At 100: Celebrating A Swing Era Sensation The legendary clarinetist was born 100 years ago Sunday. Shaw was a bandleader who lit a fire under a generation of jitterbuggers. He was also an outspoken, self-taught musician who became a media idol and whose personal life drew as much attention as his music.
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Artie Shaw At 100: Celebrating A Swing Era Sensation

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Artie Shaw At 100: Celebrating A Swing Era Sensation

Artie Shaw At 100: Celebrating A Swing Era Sensation

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Artie Shaw was born 100 years ago today. The late bandleader lit a fire under the jitterbug generation, became a swing-era sensation and expanded the range of popular music. The outspoken, self-taught clarinetist also became a media darling whose personal life attracted as much attention as his profession.

Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE: For Artie Shaw, it was always about the music - how he could create something better and different than what had been done before, as he told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1985.

Mr. ARTIE SHAW (Jazz Clarinetist/Big Band Leader): Most of the then-big bands that were playing what they thought was jazz were playing pretty much "Ida," "Avalon," "That's A Plenty," "King Porter Stomp," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

VITALE: In other words, the bands in the 1930s were playing jazz repertory that was already 10 years old. Shaw felt that the Broadway composers of his generation were writing far more sophisticated music.

(Soundbite of song, "Begin the Beguine")

VITALE: With Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" in 1938, Artie Shaw became an overnight sensation. The record sold millions of copies, and his music was in demand on radio programs and dance floors around the country.

Mr. TOM NOLAN (Author, "Three Chords for Beauty's Sake"): Bigger than anyone had been up till then in that world.

VITALE: Tom Nolan is the author of a new biography of Artie Shaw, called Three Chords for Beauty's Sake. Nolan says Shaw wasn't blinded by the spotlight.

Mr. NOLAN: I think the remarkable thing is he became a consummate artist.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Shaw's concern with art after he hit it big was more remarkable because of where he started out. Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born on May 23rd, 1910, to poor Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side. The family moved to Connecticut when he was seven. His father left when he was 13.

Mr. SHAW: And all I know is I grew up very, very miserably. So as a kid, at 14, I heard a guy play an instrument - jazz saxophone, as it happened. Well, at the age of 15, I had one. I was making a living at it. And at the age of 16, I was gone forever from home.

VITALE: Shaw taught himself to play the C-melody saxophone, then the alto saxophone, then the clarinet, says biographer Tom Nolan.

Mr. NOLAN: He practiced as a kid until his mouth bled, you know, and his teeth ached.

VITALE: Nolan says Shaw was obsessed with making the best music. In 1938, Shaw hired Billie Holiday, the first black singer to tour with a white swing band.

Mr. SHAW: When I hired her, I hired her because she was sincerely, for me, a sincere attempt to get the best singer I could get.

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Jazz Vocalist): (Singing) Any old time you want me, I am yours for just the asking, darling. Any old...

Mr. SHAW: We went to the South. That was difficult. See, they would refer to her as - they would say, have the nigger wench sing another song. I couldn't believe my ears.

VITALE: Billie Holiday left Shaw's band after only a few months, and the clarinetist hired a white singer, Helen Forrest, but only because the bands were expected to have singers. Shaw wanted to play instrumental music. In 1940, he created a deluxe swing band, a 32-piece orchestra with woodwinds and a string section.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: By the time he was 30, Artie Shaw reportedly earned $60,000 a week. This was 1940. Two of the most popular radio hosts of the era, George Burns and Gracie Allen, were making only $5,000 a week.

(Soundbite of opening song, "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show")

CHORUS: (Singing) Spam, what joy. George Burns and Gracie Allen, Artie Shaw and his orchestra...

VITALE: Shaw appeared each week with his band on the Burns and Allen radio show, sponsored by Spam. In one episode, he dismissed his role in the Hollywood film "Second Chorus."

(Soundbite of "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show")

Mr. SHAW: Now, George, those love scenes aren't all their cracked up to be. For example, that scene at the breakfast table where Im reading a newspaper and Paulette Godard comes in and kisses me - every time we did the scene something went wrong. You know, she kissed me 52 times. Boy, that was awful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. George BURNS (Host, "George Burns and Gracie Allen Show"): Awful? What was awful about that?

Mr. SHAW: I never got a chance to read "Lil' Abner."

(Soundbite of laughter)

VITALE: Shaw became almost as famous for his real-life romances as for his music. In 1940, he dated pin-up girl Betty Grable, then married 19-year-old actress Lana Turner on a whim the night they met. The union lasted less than a year, and the media ate it up. In all, Shaw had eight wives, including Jerome Kern's daughter Betty and actress Ava Gardner. All the while, he continued recording hits.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Artie Shaw enlisted in the Navy, where he performed for troops on bases and battleships in the Pacific. In Guadalcanal, Shaw lost part of his hearing in a bombing raid. He returned to the States and continued to lead orchestras through the end of the decade. But the scene was changing. The Swing Era was over, bebop and small-band jazz were taking hold. Shaw put together his own small group, The Gramercy Five.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Shaw went to Spain for five years. When he returned, he said he was astounded by what was passing for popular music on television.

Mr. SHAW: I happened to turn on the tube and there was Lawrence Welk. I knew him as a territory guy, playing accordion, which I dont even consider an instrument. And then one night, I saw an outstanding sight: a guy playing the piano with candles on the candle and his nose wrinkling, and he's playing Chopin with such skill that you wondered why it was played so badly. And that turned out to be a fellow named Liberace.

VITALE: Artie Shaw said he didn't fit in anymore. In 1954, he walked away from the music business and never played another note on stage again. He was 44 years old.

Biographer Tom Nolan says in less than 20 years, Shaw left behind a body of work that is unparalleled.

Mr. NOLAN: When he played hot music, you know, it was thrilling. When he played a ballad, it was incredibly gorgeous and moving. Every note he played was different. Every note had emotion and expression.

(Soundbite of music, "Stardust")

VITALE: Shaw devoted the last half-century of his life to writing. He penned a memoir, several novels and a collection of short stories. But it's his music he'll be remembered for and that's how Shaw wanted it, as he told a record label interviewer when he was 91 years old.

Mr. SHAW: I've done things that no one has ever done before. And if you think that's easy, try it.

VITALE: Artie Shaw died six years ago at the age of 94.

For NPR News, Im Tom Vitale in New York.

HANSEN: You can hear more of Artie Shaw's music at

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