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Arvell Shaw: 1923-2002
Arvell Shaw

Born: September 15, 1923 in St Louis, Missouri
Died: December 5, 2002 in Roosevelt, New York

Bassist had long association with Louis Armstrong

Copyright © 2002 


Arvell Shaw was best known for his long association with Louis Armstrong. The bassist first worked with him when he was brought into the trumpeter’s big band as a temporary replacement in 1945, and made the position his own.

He was one of the few players retained when Armstrong eventually disbanded the large group in favour of a more economic (and musically exciting) septet, Louis Armstrong and The All-Stars, in the wake of successful concerts at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York in 1947.

The early band line-ups included trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinettist Barney Bigard, pianist Earl Hines and drummer Big Sid Catlett. The All-Stars became one of the most famous units in jazz history, despite many changes in personnel over the years.

The bassist played with Armstrong on and off for the rest of his career, including the trumpeter’s last appearance at the Waldorf Astoria in New York a few days before his death in 1971. He played on all his recordings from 1945 on, and appeared with him in seven films, including The Glenn Miller Story (1953) and High Society (1956).

His rock solid rhythmic foundation, highly accomplished soloing and engaging personality suited Armstrong’s requirements perfectly. When interviewed for Ken Burns’s recent mammoth television documentary Jazz, Shaw recalled being taken to hear Armstrong play when only eight or nine years old. The effect, he said, was "like an electric shock went up my spine".

He was born Arvell James Shaw in St Louis, and learned to play tuba and trombone in his high school band. He switched to the increasingly prevalent double bass while playing with New Orleans band leader Fate Marable on the Mississippi riverboats in the early 1940s.

He served in the Navy, where he played in military bands, then joined Armstrong’s big band as a temporary replacement for a bass player who had taken three weeks leave, and remained in the group for a quarter century.

He studied harmony and composition in Geneva in 1951, an experience which developed his playing even further on his return to the All-Stars. He toured the world with the group, including visits to South America and Africa.

His tenure with Armstrong included a series of breaks from the band (his replacements included Milt Hinton), some of which were brought about by taking time off to help with bringing up his daughter Victoria, who suffers from autism. He often played benefit concerts for charities in aid of people with developmental disabilities.

His leaves of absence from Armstrong’s band also allowed him to work with a range of other notable jazz leaders, something he continued after the trumpeter’s death. They included Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Wild Bill Davison, Buddy Tate, Dorothy Donegan and Lionel Hampton, among others.

He was much in demand as a freelance musician in New York, and played in the pit bands for the Broadway shows Bubbling Brown Sugar and Ain't Misbehavin' in the late 70s and early 80s.

He played with English pianist Keith Smith’s Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong touring package, and founded the Louis Armstrong Legacy Band.

He suffered from glaucoma, and his eyesight had deteriorated to the point of blindness by the late Nineties. Undeterred, he continued to perform and tour up until last month, discreetly aided by his partner, Cynthia Moten.

He died from a heart attack, and is survived by Cynthia Moten, their daughter Victoria, a brother and a sister.

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With 6 reader comments, latest March 10, 2012