January 2005A time when clarinetists were matinee idols is difficult
to imagine today. In addition to being the loss of a fine musician and an
extraordinary human being, the death of Artie Shaw earlier this month at the
age of 94 is a dramatic illustration of the fleetingness of fame and fashion.
In 1930s and 1940s show business, Shaw's relationship to his fellow
celebrity and hot licorice-stick player Benny Goodman could be compared, on the
level of stardom if not musically, to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in the
1960s. It was the high end of the music business. Oddly enough, one reason Shaw
will be remembered is the way that he left it.
His reasons for
retiring for good in 1955 can be guessed from the public letter, published in
Down Beat magazine, which he wrote to Duke Ellington about the same
time. He congratulated Ellington for "functioning with integrity in a field
which only too often demands dishonesty, lack of dignity, and cheap compromises
of every possible sort
a business bristling with 'names' built solely on
willingness to cater to cheapness, shoddiness, and ignorance in mass
a 'racket' ridden with every manner of vulgarity."
walked away from $60,000 a weekthe approximate salary of an NBA star in
today's money. "For the sake of my sanity," he said, "I had to get out of the
Artie Shaw business." Calling his fans "morons," he explained: "It was like
having a gangrenous arm. I had to cut it off to survive." He left absolutely at
the top of his game. If he had to play music he did not like to make money, he
would stop making music. He had never been more popular, earned more, had a
better band, or played better clarinetwhich he never performed in public
again. The New York Times called it an "incautious burning of all his
"Disgusted" with making music for the "lowest possible common
denominator," he moved to Spain. Having already written his autobiography,
The Trouble With Cinderella, he published two collections of stories,
including I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead. He spent much of the last
quarter of the 20th century working on The Education of Albie Snow, an
ever-expanding unpublished novel based on his life as a musician. According to
his friend, the lyricist and writer Gene Lees: "Artie Shaw gave up being one of
the most brilliant musicians ever to become a second-rate writer."
one way of looking at it. Another is that a successful person renouncing money
and power in favor of the intellect is admirable. He just wanted out of a
system that had nothing to do with any reality he was interested inas
though he was the one sane man in the asylum. Shaw always admitted to being
compulsive. What with back taxes to pay, and miscellaneous temptations along
the way, there had been earlier attempts at a breakout. The first came in 1939,
just after his recording of "Begin The Beguine" topped the charts for six
weeks. Having trouble handling the fame, he disappeared into Mexico, later
explaining: "I wanted to retire from the planet, not just music."
Coming back in 1940, he had a hit with "Frenesi," a Mexican song he had
grown to love down there. The next year, he had a bigger hit, "Stardust,"
whichwith his fat-toned and lucid clarinet, and Jack Jenney's classic
trombone soloremains a high spot in the history of the Broadway song
form. He hired Billie Holiday, Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, Oran "Hot Lips"
Page, Hank Jones, and Tommy Potter; pioneering (along with Goodman) the
desegregation of big bands. He also hired Mel Torme, Billy Butterfield, Max
Kaminsky, Johnny Guarnieri (on harpsichord), Barney Kessel, Dodo Marmarosa, and
Buddy Rich ("he played like the Czechoslovakian army").
Harbor, Shaw volunteered for the US navy and led a service band that remained
almost constantly under fire in the South Pacific for 18 months. He was
hospitalized for exhaustion. During his many segues out of show business, he
studied farming, the Talmud, classical clarinet, and creative writing,
acquiring a library of some 15,000 books. But music is a hard mistress to
discard, and he was never totally free of the habit of fingering the chords to
"All The Things You Are" on an air clarinet.
"His combination of
success, intelligence, good looks (he resisted Hollywood offers on principle),
and good music led to an A-list love life. Although he pointed out that most of
them were just "glorified affairs," necessary because of the moral code of the
day, being married eight times became a part of Shaw's mystique. He married,
among others, the actresses Lana Turner (for whom he broke off an affair with
Betty Grable: "My college education," Turner called him), Ava Gardner ("her
beauty ruled her," he said), and Evelyn Keyes; and the novelist (Forever
Amber) Kathleen Winsor (they had made plans to write together).
Ava Gardner and Artie
Photo courtesy of AP
During its prime from the
late 1930s through the mid 1940s, his band was working five sold-out shows a
day, seven days a week for months on end at major venues such as the Loews
State Theater in New York. They always concluded with Shaw's cosmic high C at
the end of "Clarinet Concerto," his own composition. Nobody else could play
that notehe had invented the fingering himself. "Artie, aren't you ever
scared of missing it?" another clarinetist once asked him. "If you're not sure
you can make something," Shaw replied: "Don't try."
Being, after all, in
the "Artie Shaw business," Artie Shaw once told Benny Goodman: "You play
clarinet. I play music." Their competitive relationship was worthy of a
Western. The music business was just not big enough for the two of them. They
were too much alikeGoodman engaged Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton;
Shaw signed-up Holiday and Eldridge. Born a year apart, both of them were from
Jewish immigrant parents (Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawky), they played the
same instrument, each was one of the best soloists in his band, each also
played classical music, and they were both pop idols. Eventually, one or the
other had to ride out of town. Most musicians preferred Shaw, who was smarter,
hipper, more adventurous, and just plain nicer. (Ironically enough, Goodman's
music seems to be wearing better.) Ellington's clarinetist Barney Bigard called
Shaw "simply the best." "Being a household name," Shaw complained in his
autobiography, was "a full-time job."
When I interviewed him almost
exactly ten years ago, Shaw was living a secluded, incognito life in a northern
suburb of Los Angeles, the name of which he made me promise not to print. "I'm
an old curmudgeon," he explained. "A recluse. I don't know a soul in the
neighborhood. People leave me alone. Word is out that I'm a shooter." (He had
won marksman's medals.) People who came up to him saying: "Oh, I really loved
"Begin The Beguine" made him "want to vomit."
At the timehe was
84he was periodically publishing what were more like edicts than
interviews about the state of jazz and the world, both of which he saw clearly
if eccentrically. Mostly, he was still content to spend his days investigating
the possibilities of language. He had recently discovered the Talmudic word
"mazik," which combines music and magic. He continued to write because he
enjoyed the solitude as much as the doing of it. Mornings, he could not wait to
get up and see what the day would hold, and to rewrite his most recent pages.
National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters
Fellowship: 2005 Fellowship Recipient
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International
Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called
"Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of
Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted
recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de
l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.