Artie Shaw

“Artie Shaw could execute like mad. I like Artie for the things that were almost impossible to do on the clarinet." – Barney Bigard

Artie Shaw

When band leader Artie Shaw put down his clarinet in 1954 – vowing never to play again – he made a “forever” decision most of us could never contemplate. Artie Shaw had been the #1 bandleader in the world. He had recorded countless tunes that were considered then, and will be thought of always, as classics. 

Along with one or two other names, none ranked higher as an innovator on his instrument. Add to that his matinee idol, dashing good looks that made him admired across the globe. Read any evaluation of Artie Shaw’s work, and so often a song title will be followed by the phrase “which became a classic.” From early recordings as a bandleader, which almost instantaneously established him as a star, to his underappreciated post-War recordings, it is a substantial body of work that few jazz artists will ever achieve.

Stardust

Artie Shaw’s tone soared ethereally, and his song sense bordered on perfection. Witness Artie Shaw’s half-chorus in his 1940 recording of “Stardust.” The entire recording, from top to bottom, is like something from another world. Billy Butterfield’s trumpet lead-in couldn’t be more gorgeously bell-like, and trombonist Jack Jenney finishes Shaw’s chorus on some kind of cloud. There isn’t one note out of place, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect recording. – Alan Goodman

By John McDonough
Born May 23, 1910, on the Lower east Side of New York, Artie Shaw grew up in New Haven, CT, where he quit high school and began his career a working musician in his mid-teens. By the middle of 1931, Artie Shaw began the long grind that would carry him through the worst years of the Depression. He was not alone. Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Bunny Berigan and others were all in the same boat, great jazz musicians making a living playing bland commercial music far below their capacities.

There was a restive frustration in the ranks of this young generation of virtuosos, bored with the tedium of bands led by singers, showmen and musical bureaucrats whose principle instrument was often a baton. It seemed unjust that the least accomplished musicians should be telling the most accomplished ones what to do.

In 1933, in a Thoreauesque gesture, Artie Shaw retired to the rural life of Erwinna, Pennsylvania, to reflect and write large thoughts on the life of Bix Beiderbecke. After a year, however, with no book or especially sizable thoughts forthcoming, Artie Shaw came to appreciate the burdens of his own ignorance. He returned to New York to resume the grind that would lead to his first strike at the big time in the spring of 1936.           

Meanwhile, other things were happening during that critical time frame. Artie Shaw was not the only young musician restless with authority and eager to break the monopoly of those sweet bands. Benny Goodman was another. And in the fall of 1934, he decided that just maybe he could be the one to do it.  

Parleying a partnership with Fletcher Henderson and weekly national exposure on NBC into a recording contract with Victor and an MCA-backed national tour in 1935, he hit pay dirt in California and finally at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. By the winter of 1935-36 everyone was talking about swing.

Two weeks after the first Super Chief rolled out of LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, Artie Shaw rolled out his Interlude In B Flat in New York at the Imperial Theater, and for the first time fame began rolling his way. The occasion was the city’s first swing concert. That was when the world outside of Local 802 started to notice the contrary clarinetist. Down Beat picked up the scent at once. “Next came Artie Shaw” – who was not yet even a blip in the magazine’s first Readers Poll. “His string swing ensemble…stole the show for novelty.…Applause tore down the house and necessitated many a bow. Four star stuff.”

Stardom now beckoned. Within three weeks Artie Shaw was recording his first records as leader for Brunswick and “the Artie Shaw business,” as he would later say, was underway. At the same time Tommy Rockwell brought Artie Shaw into the ranks of Rockwell-O’Keefe, an agency founded in 1933 on Rockwell’s management of Bing Crosby and now the second largest band booking office in America. It put him on the road with a band built on the string ensemble with a small brass section added.

For the next two years Artie Shaw circled the Holy Grail the big time with an unmitigated, almost desperate persistence. He found himself on a terrible but invigorating treadmill. In the spring of 1937 he dropped the strings and reorganized as a straight swing big band. When that didn’t move the needle, he replaced Rockwell-O’Keefe with MCA, hoping for better bookings. But MCA was Benny Goodman’s agency, and according to Artie Shaw, Goodman threatened to quit if Shaw “wasn’t stopped.”

He returned to Rockwell-O’Keefe early in 1938 but still didn’t have a clear vision of what he wanted. Dissatisfied with his Brunswick output, he stopped commercial recording altogether after 1937. It would be seven months before Artie Shaw made another record, this time for Victor’s subsidiary label, Bluebird Records.

Artie Shaw
Begin The Beguine

As Artie Shaw’s fame crept forward, he ran into the inevitable comparisons with Benny Goodman. “The chief objection to Art Shaw’s new band,” critic George Frazier wrote in Down Beat in April 1938, “is its Goodmanish inclination.… [I]t packs some slick talent. But…I was constantly reminded that Benny does the same sort of thing so much better.” Two months later came the push back as the magazine reversed itself. “Cripes! Artie Shaw Doesn’t Sound Like Goodman!” the headline shouted. So, which was it?

Contemporary press accounts in the trades suggest audiences didn’t really care what Down Beat or George Frazier thought. They were starting to listen to Artie Shaw because the big band simply sounded terrific. And when stories like the girls school dance in Wellesley got talked around, it only whetted fans’ appetite for more. During a dance date in late March at the Pine Manor Girls Junior College, the dean reportedly became alarmed at band’s heat and demanded that Shaw “stop playing that kind of music” or he would never play the school again. Naturally, Artie Shaw ignored the order and poured it on.

Maybe something had intervened that spring to put Artie Shaw onto the express track. When band patron and ballroom manager Si Shribman got behind the band, bookings and airtime improved. Or perhaps it was just the invisible hand of evolution on the music. The evidence on that is sketchy. Except for a transcription session in February, the band went completely unrecorded between December and July, and none of its Tuesday or Saturday Boston broadcasts seem to have survived.

This is especially unfortunate since it was on March 14 that Artie Shaw brought Billie Holiday into his band as vocalist, a tenure largely lost to us except for her famous Bluebird version of Any Old Time. The critics were ecstatic. “What a combination the Artie Shaw and Billie Holiday one is,” wrote a Boston writer in April. “Something to make the ‘cats’ lick their chops about.”

The band was playing relentlessly and people were starting to listen. “This is to acquaint the brethren with the biggest hunk of jazz dynamite now languishing in the shade of the old one-night stand,” wrote Down Beat’s John Monro, a true believer eager to spread the early word and frankly jolt the band from its low-grade stupor.

It was June 1938. “My reason for penning this piece is a sincere belief that given decent publicity break, Artie Shaw has the musical genius and honesty to start a trend in popular taste toward a real renaissance in solid jazz….It sounds to me, and has all winter, like just about the finest jazz ever to assail these hardened ears.” He described Shaw as “a stubborn guy, and intelligent,” then enumerated a litany of bad breaks that had hit the band, including poor publicity, “rotten schedules, layoffs, pay, cuts and the rest of the one-night miseries.” But he made a prediction: “It is this opinion that if honest musicianship counts for anything any more, Artie Shaw deserves to be the smash musical hit of 1938-39.”

Rarely would a prediction pay off so promptly or profusely. Within a month Artie Shaw would resume recording, now for Bluebird. The first tune of the first record date he made in late July was Begin The Beguine, the spark was struck that would carry Artie Shaw to the top. – John McDonough, liner note excerpt Classic Artie Shaw Bluebird And Victor Sessions (Mosaic Records)

Rare Artie Shaw Documentary

This rarely seen documentary of Artie Shaw is well produced by John Ferguson and includes heavy doses of interview segments by Artie Shaw, Loren Schoenberg, Gary Giddens, Dick Johnson and Richard Sudhalter. -Scott Wenzel

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