Shaw, Artie (Contemporary Musicians)
Clarinetist, bandleader, composer, writer
Artie Shaw had everything at the height of his career. One of the most popular and lauded musicians of the late 1930s and 1940s, he formed successful bands almost at will, earned up to an estimated $30,000 a week, and married some of the most desirable women in America. Yet he disbanded groups soon after he formed them, scorned the money he earned, and divorced eight wivesome within a few months after marriage. At the age of 44, he simply walked away from his greatest accomplishment, confirming what author George Bernard Shaw is credited as having said, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." Gunther Schuller noted in his book The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 that to begin to solve the mystery of Artie Shaw one must answer "how the rather mediocre clarinet player that Shaw was" early in his career could become within ten years "one of the two or three most outstanding clarinetists in all of jazzome would say the greatest of them all."
The desire that precipitated this transformation developed in Shaw's childhood. When he was seven years old, his family moved from his birthplace, New York City, to New Haven, Connecticut, where, for the first time, Shawée Arthur Arshawskyas reviled for being Jewish. Already a sensitive child, he withdrew further. "I had an enormous need to belong, to have some feeling of roots, to become part of a community, all out of a terrible sense of insecurity coupled with an inordinate desire to prove myself worthy," Shaw recounted years later in his autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity.
Shaw subsequently reasoned that money, success, and fame would fulfill his yearnings and felt he could achieve these as a musicianirst as a saxophonist, then as a clarinetist. He quit school and did nothing but play his instrument. "I went at it daily for as much as six or seven hours," Shaw wrote in his autobiography, "and then quit only because my teeth ached and the inside of my lower lip was ragged and cut from the constant pressure of the mouthpiece and reed." He was only 14 years old.
Fervid Dedication to Craft
Shaw learned that any great artist's latent talent is brought to the fore by desire and dedication to his craft. For a person to create something he "must be prepared to spend his life at itf he wants to do it well, or even as well as he can. This is a matter of self-dedication," he reasoned in The Trouble With Cinderella. And so for the next ten years Shaw did just that: he practiced, learned from local musicians, sat in with local bands, became a studio musician, went on tour with larger bands, played with theater orchestras, learned to arrange music, and began composing. In 1936 Shaw formed the first of many bands he would subsequently lead.
By 1938 Shaw had "developed a real ability to spin long, elegant, vibrant, seamless lines, almost as if he [were] trying to capture on his clarinet what a violin, without the need to breathe, could do so naturally and effectively," Schuller claimed. Down Beats Howard Mandel, critiquing recordings from that period, declared: "In Shaw's lips and hands the clarinet bent as pliantly as a blade of grass; it thrilled [him] to make glissandi, fast or sad melodies, and wonderful virtuosic turns."
Popular Success Unwanted
No one "could have convinced me of the misery I was heading for in my pursuit of the same old success-Fame-Happiness-Cinderella constellation," Shaw wrote in his autobiography. As his artistic playing began to change and mature, so did his artistic vision. "Shaw was, in his best years, an uncompromising searcher for the lofty and the expressive, for real musical substance, not only in his own playing but in the styles and concepts of his bands," Schuller observed. But society's definition of musical success differed; in the field of popular entertainment Shaw was trying to create art.
The incredible popularity of the 1939 recording "Begin the Beguine," an old Cole Porter song, thrust Shaw and his band into the disparaging limelight. To his chagrin, this and other recordings, including "Frenesi," "Summit Ridge Drive," and "Star Dust," became successful for what he saw as the wrong reasons. He was creating music to which he wanted people to listen, not jitterbug. Years later, he told John S. Wilson of the New York Times, "If they want to dance, it's their business. My business is to play music that is very, very hearable. Mozart wrote dance music but nobody dances to it. It's a matter of training an audience."
Shaw was never able to control his listeners. "From that general period until 1954, Shaw sifted in and out of music like a reprise," Robert Lewis Taylor noted in the New Yorker. "He worked up a number of fine bands, scuttled them quickly when they grew popular; he felt crushed by success and was angered by adulation." Shaw even suffered several nervous breakdowns and retreated from the music business many times only to return with new groups and new combinations: small ensembles, large groups, a jazz group surrounded by a symphonic ensemble of strings, woodwinds, and his famous Gramercy Five harpsichord. But nothing worked to his satisfaction. "The fact that Shaw had at least eight different bands between 1936 and 1955... is symptomatic of both his searching and his confusion, and ultimately of his inability to find what he was looking for," Schuller contended in The Swing Era.
Walked Away at His Peak
Shaw quit playing his clarinet in 1954 and left the music business. He cited countless reasons for his sudden departure: the insensitivity and ignorance he encountered in the popular music business; the stifling effect of the public's continued demand for his past hit recordings; creative stagnation; and his desire to pursue other interests such as creative writing. But these justifications, Christopher Porterfield noted in Time, have failed to dissuade "the conviction, still held by many fans, critics, and fellow musicians, that a gift like Shaw's is something you just don't abandon." Shaw returned in 1983uring a resurgent interest in big bandso help reorganize a band under his name, but did not perform himself, rendering it inconsequential.
In his musical career and other endeavors, Shaw sought goals and truthsome real and some imagined. But the drive that propelled him toward those ideals also pushed them out of his reach. "The closer an artist gets to perfection," he explained to People's Richard Lemon, "the further up his idea of perfection is, so he's chasing a receding horizon." Schuller concluded that this personal sense of unattainable achievement should not have dimmed Shaw's place among us: "That Shaw was able in his finest accomplishments to sweep us along in his searching and discoveries and at one point939epresent the best the Swing Era had to offer, we can hold forever in highest esteem." But Shaw, a man who walked away from music when his tone was "crystalline, his lines distinctively long and sinuous, full of witty, sometimes startling interjections and exuberant flurries," Porterfield commented, leaves a lasting impression that is forever muddied, stained by the mystery of "the richness of what was, the wistfulness of what might have been."
The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity (autobiography), Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1952.
I Love You, I Hate You. Drop Dead! Three Variations on a Theme (novellas), Fleet, 1965.
The Best of Intentions: And Other Stories, John Daniel, 1989.
Composer of "Interlude in B flat," 1936; "Free for All," 1937; "Any Old Time," 1938; "Nightmare," 1938; "Moonray," 1939; "Back Bay Shuffle," 1939; "Summit Ridge Drive," 1940; and "Concerto for Clarinet," 1940.
"Begin the Beguine," Bluebird, 1938.
"Any Old Time," Bluebird, 1938.
"Nightmare," Bluebird, 1938.
"Traffic Jam," Bluebird, 1939.
"Frenesí," Victor, 1940.
"Summit Ridge Drive," Victor, 1940.
"Star Dust," Victor, 1940.
"The Blues," Victor, 1940.
"Concerto for Clarinet," Victor, 1940.
"Moon Glow," Victor, 1941.
"Evensong," Victor, 1942.
"Suite No. 8," Victor, 1942.
"September Song," Victor, 1945.
"Little Jazz," Victor, 1945.
Reissues and compilations
Artie Shaw: A Legacy, Book of the Month Club.
(With Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones) Artie Shaw& His Orchestra, Vols. 1-2, Musicraft.
The Best of Artie Shaw, MCA.
The Complete Artie Shaw, Vols. 1-7, RCA/Bluebird.
The Complete Gramercy Five Sessions, RCA/Bluebird.
Free for All, Portrait Masters.
The Last Recordings, Musicmasters, 1992.
Personal Best, Bluebird/RCA, 1992.
The Uncollected Artie Shaw, Vols. 7-5, Hindsight.
Schuller, Günther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Shaw, Artie, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1952.
Down Beat, November 1980; April 1985; February 1986.
High Fidelity, November 1984.
Newsweek, January 2, 1984.
New Yorker, May 19, 1962.
New York Times, August 16, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1965.
People, June 1, 1981; October 29, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, August 4, 1989.
Stereo Review, June 1981; October 1982.
Time, May 18, 1992.