A Profile of Artie Shaw by Aaron Cohen

Swing Shift

A Profile of Artie Shaw

by Aaron Cohen
Copyright © 1997 Aaron Cohen

(author's note: This article originally appeared in Issue #8 of The Baffler and accompanied an autobiographical short story by Shaw)

What an idiotic business...The hell with it.

- Artie Shaw

Nobody ever could play clarinet like Artie Shaw. He hit unbelievably high registers and swung like mad once he got there. Shaw led crack bands from the '30s through the '50s that featured such luminaries as Billie Holiday, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and drummer Buddy Rich. When he wasn't satisfied with what was then considered a traditional jazz band line-up, he skillfully arranged for strings or orchestras. For many, he remains the most remarkable talent of the swing era, a virtuoso whose hit records are far more substantial than the nostalgia-soundtrack fodder produced by many of his contemporaries.

Duke Ellington's clarinetist Barney Bigard once told jazz critic Gene Lees that Shaw is "the greatest clarinetist who ever lived." Contemporary musicians, who inhabit a musical universe much altered since the Swing era, also acknowledge a debt to Shaw. John Carter, for example, who brought Ornette Coleman's harmonic developments to the clarinet, was a friend of Shaw's. Hal Russell of the NRG Ensemble, who combined the intensity of Albert Ayler with the electric slam of punk rock recorded the "Artie Shaw Suite" as a tribute before Russell died in 1992 (the tapes are still unreleased). And saxophonist Wayne Shorter told Down Beat in October 1995 that "Artie played intelligent. He found another way to play."

Shaw's music is unique. It blurs the boundaries between composition and improvisation, and yet it has also been enormously popular. Like swing in general, Shaw's playing is at once esoteric and populist, sophisticated and accessible. He became a huge star in the years before World War II and married a succession of movie goddesses. And then he decided to walk away from fame.

Shaw has always been pretty explicit about the aspects of the music industry that drove him away. His 1952 autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella, is a sharp attack on record companies, business culture, and American ideas of success. The book is extremely short on the damp tales of celebrity doings that usually mark the genre; instead it describes a person who could grapple with the absurdities that brought him stardom without drowning in narcissism or self-pity.

His provocations were not limited to the entertainment industry, either. Touring the Jim Crow South with an integrated band in the 1930s, he ran afoul of angry bigots more than once. And his political sympathies earned him a disastrous appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the darkest days of the great Red hunt. Afterwards, Shaw retreated to a brief exile in Europe.

Today, 85 years old and as abrasive as ever, he continues to excoriate the music industry and regards contemporary political developments with some astonishment. The man is still wonderfully choleric. And although Shaw gave up playing years ago, he actively writes for four hours a day and is planning a 12-CD retrospective of his life's work from his home in Southern California. Shaw spent one afternoon chatting over the phone with Baffler editor Tom Frank and me.

Listening to the recordings that Shaw made, it's not difficult to hear why he's been praised so highly. After cutting through a few quaint and regrettable trappings (such as the goofy war whoops on "Indian Love Call"), Shaw's beautiful and mysterious technique is still fresh today. Check out the way he screams unpredictably in and out of "Nightmare" while the band, seemingly oblivious, tromps through its basic rhythmic scheme. In one of the gems of Shaw's later years, "Love of My Life," he shows how an alluring solo can be built on concentrated restraint. The compilation on which that song appears, The Last Recordings, demonstrates the influence on Shaw of such varied figures as Bela Bartok and onetime Shaw roommate Bix Beiderbecke. Another reissue, The Indispensable Artie Shaw, Vol. 5/6 (which covers the years 1944-1945) is a terrific presentation of his orchestral works and his famous small group, the Gramercy Five.

Shaw maintains that there were no blueprints for his constant switching of bands and formats, a tendency music scholar Gunther Schuller notes in The Swing Era. "I can only say I did what I had to do and what I felt like doing," Shaw says. "I mean, I don't think you can go and ask a composer who writes for symphonies why he wrote sonatas. Beethoven wrote 111 sonatas, and he wrote songs for string quartets, and he wrote symphonies, operas, overtures. You get bored doing the same thing if you're trying to grow as a human being, which some people insist on.

"Other's don't. Guy Lombardo bragged that he never changed his music in his entire life, and it worked for him. But that's like Henry Ford saying 'We're still doing the Model T.' It doesn't make sense to me. So I never thought about why I did it. I only knew that I was bored and I had explored one thing as much as I needed to and then I decided to change into something else. It wasn't a matter of 'creative effort.' Those are not terms you think of. You do the best you can and when you're doing the best you can, sometimes you approach it and sometimes you don't."

Shaw believes that the multi-disc set that he is assembling under the title Good Enough Isn't Good Enough will constitute the most accurate presentation of his musical career. Not only will it be a comprehensive collection, but Shaw is using an unusual criterion to select the recordings---namely "those things that I did, at whatever time it was, that I thought came closest to meeting my intentions." Recording techniques in the pre-tape era, he recalls, only rarely allowed the bandleader's ideas to be translated unproblematically into the finished product. For one thing, "you had a committee. You had 17 men, or five men, or 22 men, or 40 men, in a studio. They could goof, anybody could goof." And since all recordings had to be performed straight through without benefit of remixing or alterations of any kind, artists played cautiously.

"You had to start a piece and there were three minutes and 15 seconds," Shaw recounts. "Toward the end you got pretty concerned when you had a really good [record] behind you, so you tended to play safe. You didn't want to have to go back and redo the whole thing and maybe leave out a really good beginning to get a good ending."

Artie Shaw's music is remarkable, but in some regards he should be recognized for being as much a part of his time as ahead of it. The swing era was unique in America's cultural history because some brilliant music became immensely popular, and because popular artists did not shy away from open political dissent. As David W. Stowe observes in his perceptive bookSwing Changes, the unique modes of jazz performance not only reflected, but played a key role in achieving the social progress of the 1930s.

"The central cultural link," Stowe writes, "is the New Deal, understood not as a collection of legislative initiatives and alphabet agencies but as a broad-based cultural movement. Swing did more than symbolize this movement; it participated in direct, material ways. Swing was the preeminent musical expression of the New Deal: a cultural form of 'the people,' accessible, inclusive, distinctively democratic, and then distinctively American."

Stowe argues that this democratization resulted not only from the collaborative efforts of such bands as Ellington's and Basie's to bring American folk art to international acclaim—jazz musicians involved themselves in various progressive political causes of the day. Ellington was officially investigated for his endorsement of the All-Harlem Youth Conference of 1938 and worked at a fund-raiser for the Hollywood chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Benny Goodman also worked on behalf of volunteers who fought against fascism in Spain. But Shaw's once-notorious eruptions are particularly relevant today.

Shaw describes his decision to hire Billie Holiday in the mid 1930s as a strictly musical matter, but others have noted its political significance. Music historian Stuart Nicholson writes in a recent biography of the singer that:

"Shaw's courageous stance in presenting Billie Holiday with his band has frequently been overlooked or downplayed over the years, overshadowed perhaps by his own phenomenal success that was to come in the following months. His part in fighting for racial equality never received the recognition of his great rival, Benny Goodman, but Shaw employed drummer Zutty Singleton in his first ensemble as early as 1936. He also featured, at various times, Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge and featured the work of composer William Grant Still. 'I was doing what I could,' said Shaw, 'but I wasn't in a position to change the attitude of the masses of people toward black-white relations.'"

Saxophonist Les Robinson recalls that once the integrated band had to be defended forcibly: when Holiday was attacked by a barroom lout in Kentucky, Shaw—in a curious anticipation of Sid Vicious—belted the assailant with his clarinet. Today Shaw disputes some of the details. "I have too much respect for the clarinet to hit somebody with it," Shaw says. "I might have kicked somebody in the head, but I doubt it."

At about the same time, Shaw was becoming a volatile critic of the growing commercialization of jazz, especially the marketing tendencies that threatened to turn over artistic direction to outside managers. Shaw briefly quit the music industry in 1939 after a year of phenomenal success, denouncing the business as he left. The explosion was reported in TheSaturday Evening Post and is recounted by David Stowe: "Anyone can lead a dance band," Shaw insisted. "The average bandleader is only a front, a window dressing." With money, musicians, and a good public relations man, Shaw boasted, he could "make Joe Doakes, who doesn't know a C scale from a snare drum, one of the most popular band leaders in America."

Of course, he added, bandleaders must be prepared to "fight politics, corruption, and a system of patronage" to succeed in a field that was "10 per cent art and 90 per cent business." Today, Shaw believes, the exploitation of art by business continues unabated. "The corporate structure has a bottom line, the balance sheet," he says. "If you did well last year, you're okay. Oh, yeah, they talk a lot about 'quality,' but basically their quality comes out of the bottom line. 'Did we make it last year? If we didn't, then we gotta make some changes. Either that or we're out of business.' "

Most of this, Shaw feels, is fairly obvious to musicians. "The culture industry speaks for itself, we all know what that is," he says. "Anybody that's got a pair of eyes and a pair of ears and can read and listen knows that the crap that's going on is beyond belief. It's a wonder we're not drowned in it. I mean, we're all up to our nostrils in it."

But towards theorists like T.W. Adorno, who assert that jazz itself is just another product of that industry, Shaw has immediate contempt. "They drive me out of my fucking mind," Shaw growls. "Why don't they just shut up and listen? It's all quack, quack, quack. The gabbling of geese. They don't know what they're talking about because they've never done it."

Despite his animosity towards the music industry, Shaw lauds the basic good taste of the general listening public. "The public, over time, finds better stuff than what the music industry gives them, or wants to give them," Shaw observes. "People were always telling me what records to make, what tunes to make, but I went my own way. And my way has supported me. I picked tunes, and oddly enough, they had the lasting power 50 or 60 years later. That's a long time, you know."

Shaw's contradictory cultural position at the time he retired—his concurrent stardom and disgust for stardom, his vast popularity and musical sophistication, his status as an industry darling and his dislike for the industry—suggests a powerful counterpoint to the fetishization of "jazz" then being articulated by the Beats. Naturally, Shaw shares those writers' reverence for black culture in Trouble with Cinderella, but he refused to regard black musicians as the earthy exotics or primeval existentialists they were to Allen Ginsberg or Norman Mailer. The Harlem figures from whom Shaw honed his craft—Willie "The Lion" Smith and Chick Webb—are portrayed not just as natural talents or a mysterious, shamanistic "other," but as disciplined virtuosos. Shaw's time with them was spent in intense nightly workout, rather than the drugged frenzies or speeding cars preferred by Jack Kerouac. Through the Harlem jam sessions, Shaw developed his own sound.

But the humanitarian faith that Shaw evokes in Cinderella takes on a bleak resonance as he also relates in the book that he hid his Jewish background (he was born with the name Arthur Arshawski) partially because of the ethnic hatred that was hurled at him during his lonely childhood in New Haven. Cinderella echoes many of the larger themes articulated by Jewish-American writers of Shaw's generation. His vivid account of growing up in the Jewish working class while being ostracized for his race and intellectual curiosity reflects a forgotten world similar to the novels of Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs. Shaw also describes fame with the same kind of mocking horror that Nathanael West so effectively conjured. And Shaw's continuing encounters with anti-Semitism—later among American hipsters in the 1950s—informs his 1965 collection of novellas, I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!

HUAC tried to do worse than merely ostracize Shaw when it subpoenaed him to testify in 1953. After his deposition to the committee, a New York Times headline declared, "Artie Shaw Says He Was Red 'Dupe,'" but the bandleader remembers that day differently. HUAC was "looking for prominent people," Shaw recollects, and "I had joined a lot of organizations." Membership in these liberal groups, according to the political logic of the day, was enough to cast one's patriotism in doubt. Grilled by the committee about his activities in the innocuous "Peace Congress," Shaw replied, "I see nothing wrong with having a bunch of people from different countries coming together and talking about peace." "Don't you know that was a Communist fronted party?" persisted his inquisitor. "If you tell me about a Republican fronted one, I'll join that," Shaw replied.

Shaw adds that his previous outspokenness may have been part of why HUAC called him in. "Capitalism deserves to be debunked," Shaw says. "You go to war with a country for a few dollars, but you won't go to war to protect a citizen's life. We're out there to protect capital. That's why I was hauled before HUAC, because I made the major mistake of thinking. Don't ever do that, at least not in a public way, and, unfortunately, I was a public figure at that point."

The HUAC episode gave Shaw a bad taste for cold war America, and he exiled himself to Spain shortly afterwards. The ruling fascists in that country didn't seem to care that an American officially accused of communist sympathies had fled into their midst. "Franco never knew I existed," Shaw recalls. "Spain, when I was living there, was one of the few countries in the world where nobody knew where you were or who you were. I did a lot of fishing, a lot of thinking, and some writing." But after a few years, Shaw returned to America. "I'm not cut out to be an expatriate," he says. "I don't like wine that much."

Since his resettlement in the U.S., Shaw has undertaken a string of disparate activities. For a while he ran a rifle range and manufactured guns. He even placed fourth in a national marksmens' competition. While working on the reissue package of his records, he also taught courses in general aesthetics at Oxnard College and wrote a plethora of short stories, some of which were published in the 1989 collection, The Best of Intentions.

Nowadays, Shaw is working on that 92-chapter autobiographical novel which, in Dostoevskian fashion, he intends to be the first part of a trilogy. "Generally I get four hours of writing in, or editing," Shaw says. "I've been on this book for 15 years. I go to lectures, hear other bands—but not that often. There's very few that are good enough to listen to."

Shaw also observes the contemporary cultural and political scene with resignation. "It's very hard for me to take anything seriously. You've gotta be very young to think you're going to make much of a dent." Shaw, of course, made a rather sizable dent. "I did make a small difference," he concedes when Tom and I protest his claim of insignificance. "I was in World War II, and went around the Pacific playing for the troops, but there was this enormous conflict. I was one tiny little flash in all that."

Despite this sense of withdrawal, his 1979 account of surviving McCarthyism is, if not a rallying cry, then a welcome consolation for a time when a crop of young Republicans are reviving the religious right:

"I'm convinced that the thing that saved me, the one thing that kept me going, through it all, was sheer downright orneriness, the fact that I was just too damned mulish to lie down and oblige a pack of righteous idiots who believed they cornered the market on truth. Besides, I was curious to see what might happen next. Who knows? (I kept thinking) there may be a sudden outbreak of mass sanity. Hey, don't laugh. It may happen yet. Listen, anything is possible."


C o m m e n t s

The Genius of Artie Shaw 1 of 4
Jerry August 30, 03

I collect Artie Shaw CD's playing them via an ipod and a 1960's amplifier with modern speakers. The music is magnificent. I especially love the 1938 and 1940 bands. The live radio broadcasts are without question the finest music I have ever listened to.

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