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Artie Shaw

Born: May 23, 1910 in New York, NY
Died: December 30, 2004 in Thousand Oaks, CA

Legendary clarinetist and bandleader

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins

Clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, who sold 100 million records before quitting the music business half a century ago, died on December 30, 2004, at his home in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 94 years old.

Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky to impoverished Jewish parents in New York City, Shaw grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. He bought his first saxophone at the age of thirteen, and within three years he was playing professionally. Soon he had made the clarinet his principal instrument and was performing with high-profile jazz bands like Irving Aaronson's Commanders. In the 1930s he worked as a studio musician while privately exploring contemporary classical music as envisioned by Bartok, Debussy and Stravinsky. In 1935 he performed his "Interlude in Bb" with a string quartet and rhythm section, bringing down the house at the Imperial Theater. The name of Artie Shaw (a surname taken, he alternately claimed, either due to anti-Semitic issues or the sake of brevity) began to spread.

From the late 1930s until his retirement Shaw was uncomfortable with the position his increasing popularity put him in. Being considered the antidote to Benny Goodman's "formulaic" style of swing was lucrative and frustrating at the same time. (Shaw once quipped, "Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music.") "Begin the Beguine" was a smash for the Shaw band in 1938; other hits like "Moonglow", "Frenesi" and "Stardust" followed, and soon Shaw was earning about $60,000 per week. But he grew sick of having to play the same tunes at every appearance for years thereafter. Shaw didn't like to stay in one place for too long, but the music industry seemed dead-set on quelling his ambitions.

Also in 1938, Shaw took the daring step of hiring a black vocalist to sing in front of his white band. Billie Holiday later rocketed to stardom, but her tenure with Shaw was tainted by the hatred of Southern audiences and blindered bookers who wanted pop singers instead of blues singers. "Any Old Time", her biggest hit with Shaw, was the catalyst for her eventual rise to fame. Angered by the way he and Holiday were treated, Shaw disbanded his group for the first time in 1939. Later on he put together new groups as he saw fit, featuring such up-and-comers as Mel Torme, Helen Forrest, Buddy Rich, Barney Kessel, Ray Conniff and Roy Eldridge. His personal life became as colorful as his music. Shaw was married eight times; his first two wives, Jane Carnes and Margaret Allen, didn't boast celebrity pedigrees, but his later spouses included actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Evelyn Keyes and Doris Dowling, novelist Kathleen Winsor, and Jerome Kern's daughter, Elizabeth.

In the 1940s Shaw led several Navy bands but had a nervous breakdown due to the pressures of the war and maintaining the groups properly. Later in the decade he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall and put together his popular Gramercy Five combo. he experimented with using harpsichords and Cuban musicians in other ensembles. But the advent of rock-and-roll, continued headaches of touring and dealing with industry machinations led Shaw to call it quits in 1954. He never again picked up the clarinet, although he briefly went through the motions of conducting a sort of ghost band in the 1980s.

Shaw lived in Spain for a few years and wrote several books, beginning with his controversial autobiography "The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity" (1952), which barely touched upon his music career or marriages. He also wrote fiction ("I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!", 1965; "The Best of Intentions and Other Stories", 1989). He was estranged from his two sons and preferred fly-fishing and shooting to talking about his musical past, though he freely shared his opinions about the world for the rest of his life. In 1985 filmmaker Brigitte Berman released the documentary "Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got", which won an Academy Award.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.

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