Artie Shaw was a clarinet player and bandleader. A restless innovator, Shaw began his professional career early, leading his first orchestra by age 26. By the end of the 1930s, his orchestra was immensely popular, Shaw was among America’s best paid entertainers, and he was afforded the company of famous, beautiful women. Over the next fifteen years, he disbanded and reassembled small combos and big bands. He married and divorced starlets. He basked in the limelight, only to retreat into private life, repulsed by the trappings of success. In 1954, he put down the clarinet for good, to focus on a passion for writing, and the business of being Artie Shaw. Throughout his life he remained an indomitable force of nature: brilliant, uncompromising, and self-centered in the extreme. One of jazz’s most enigmatic and engaging characters.
Artie Shaw (born Arthur Arshawsky) (1910-2004), clarinet, bandleader, composer
Oran “Hot Lips” Page (1908-1954), trumpet
Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge (1911-1989), trumpet
Bernard “Buddy” Rich (1917-1987), drums
Billy Butterfield (1917-1988), trumpet, fluegelhorn
Tal Farlow (1921-1988), guitar
Barney Kessel (1923-2004), guitar
Johnny Guarnieri (1917-1985), piano, harpsichord
Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa (1925-2002), piano
The Grabtown Grapple
I was aware of Artie Shaw by the mid-eighties; by then, I owned two or three Benny Goodman records. Like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, Shaw and Goodman are inextricably linked. Sons of poor Jewish immigrants and born a year apart, they rose to prominence playing clarinet and leading the best white orchestras of the Swing era. Both men were instrumental in breaking color barriers — vocalist Billie Holiday and trumpet players Oran “Hot Lips” Page and Roy Eldridge were among the black soloists featured in Shaw’s bands. Generations later, Goodman’s legacy is more conspicuous; note the ordering of “Shaw and Goodman” — if Artie read this profile, and saw that Goodman was named first, he’d probably be mad about it.
Most people learn about Shaw by listening to Goodman first; taking that next step is a rewarding one. The song that caught my attention was “The Grabtown Grapple”, a bop-influenced swing piece by Shaw’s small band, The Gramercy Five. The song was part of a RCA Bluebird sampler CD, designed to spur interest in a reissue of their jazz catalog. It’s a great beginning step to learn about old jazz.
Grabtown, North Carolina is the childhood home of Shaw’s fifth wife, movie star Ava Gardner. Their marriage lasted just over a year, due largely to Shaw’s emotional abuse, berating her for the slightest faux pas, the simplest attempt to enter the conversation. Sex symbol or not, like many of his eight wives, he tired of her quickly and moved on. In a 1973 New York Times article, Shaw reflected on his difficulties with the opposite sex:
“I made an unholy botch of every last one of them. Of course, I believe I can state, equally accurately and with complete dispassion and objectivity, that I had a good deal of help in making those unholy botches. Lately things that have been happening have given me hope. I see the possibility of a really good relationship.”
— Artie Shaw
Shaw’s life is ripe for psychoanalysis, but any attempt here would be insufficient. I bought the book “Artie Shaw, King Of The Clarinet, His Life And Times”, by Tom Nolan, which focuses less on Shaw’s music, and more on his personal relationships. The book is full of amazing anecdotes, together with Shaw’s jaded recollections of life. Not an evil, hateful man, Shaw was gifted, driven and introverted, raised in a dysfunctional family, and struggled to relate to other people.
Whereas Goodman’s music is kinetic and straightforward, Shaw’s music is darker and more complex, with influences ranging from klezmer to classical. Whereas bebop musicians worked to distance themselves from Goodman, they tended to admire Shaw, perhaps the greatest compliment of all. There are two good movie clips of Artie Shaw, though neither capture the grace and power of his studio recordings.
Begin The Beguine
Naturally, I insisted on selecting the music for my wedding. Cheryl and I took dance lessons the previous fall, and learned the rudiments of the waltz. I selected Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns’ version of “Moonlight Waltz”, and as we danced, I maintained an intimate conversation with my new bride, which elicited the following exchange a few minutes later:
Friend: “Ooooo, Cheryl, what was he whispering in your ear?”
Cheryl: “1-2-3, 1-2-3, OK, ready for the turn? Good.”
Being ever so hip and bound to modern trends, I selected Artie Shaw’s “Begin The Beguine” as the second dance number. After that, I let the disk jockey choose the songs.
Now we’re on the dance floor at our stodgy affair, the all important waltz completed, bouncing around in unschooled fashion. After a minute, I look around, and notice that both sets of parents are smiling and swing dancing with great gusto. Truly an aha moment in life. Gee, I didn’t know they could do that. My parents, divorced for twenty years but still friendly with one another, are swing dancing well, as if they had done this dozens of times before. It was a nice moment, learning something about your parents you didn’t know.
“Begin The Beguine” has a compelling history. It’s a Cole Porter song, fashioned after the beguine, a native dance from the island of Martinique. First featured in the 1935 musical Jubilee, the obscure song is a single long melody; at 108 measures (32 measures is typical), it was thought to be the longest popular song ever written. Irving Berlin referred to it as “that long song.” The song came to the attention of Artie Shaw and arranger Jerry Gray. Gray established the chords to be used, and Shaw changed the tempo to 4/4 time. The eight bar introduction is superb, grabbing the listener with sharp reports from the brass section and a pulsating, reedy rhythm. The first song recorded during a July session in 1938, “Begin The Beguine” was released as the “B” side to “Indian Love Call”, then believed to be a sure hit.
Disk jockeys soon turned over the record and fell in love with “Beguine”. Fans roared their approval in concert. The song became a #1 hit for 6 weeks, and an enduring popular standard.
“I tried to play the song the way I thought it would sound good. When you do something that does go off on its own and it’s a standout thing — you don’t mean it to do that; you just play a particular song, and you happen to hit a way of doing it that for some unknown reason the public buys, en masse. Trouble with that is, they want you to keep doing the same thing. If you had done the same thing to start with, you’d not have played that. So — it’s a cockeyed business. When you’re dealing with the public — it’s cockeyed.”
— Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw Song Notes:
1. The best place to begin researching Artie Shaw is the 2001 retrospective Self Portrait, with songs selected by Shaw himself. The Essential Artie Shaw is also very good. In particular, the Gramercy Five songs from 1945 are wonderful. His final small band recordings from 1953-4 are also recommended. The selected songs include one with Billie Holiday (“Any Old Time”), and one with longtime singer Helen Forrest (“Deep Purple”); the rest are devoted to his great instrumentals.
Artie Shaw & His Orchestra Songs:
Begin The Beguine, Artie Shaw ✭✭✭✭✭
Nightmare, Artie Shaw ✭✭✭
Stardust, Artie Shaw ✭✭✭
Any Old Time, Artie Shaw ✭✭
The Carioca, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Jungle Drums, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Frenesi, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Dancing In The Dark, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Blues, Parts A & B, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Summertime, Artie Shaw ✭✭
Afro-Cubana, Artie Shaw ✭✭
What Is This Thing Called Love?, Artie Shaw ✭
Concerto For Clarinet, Artie Shaw ✭
Back Bay Shuffle (Live), Artie Shaw ✭
Non-Stop Flight, Artie Shaw ✭
Deep Purple, Artie Shaw ✭
Bedford Drive, Artie Shaw ✭
Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five Songs
Grabtown Grapple, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭✭✭
Scuttlebutt, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭✭
Tenderly, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭✭
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
Mysterioso (Take 2), Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
Hop, Skip And Jump, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
Special Delivery Stomp, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
Summit Ridge Drive, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
The Sad Sack, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
S’posin’, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
Don’t Take Your Love From Me, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭✭
The Gentle Grifter, Artie Shaw & His Gramercy Five ✭
Stardust, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Stardust, Jack Jenney & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Stardust, Willie Nelson ✭✭
Stardust, Ella Fitzgerald ✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Chet Baker ✭✭✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Elvis Costello ✭✭
My Funny Valentine, Miles Davis ✭✭
My Funny Valentine, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet ✭
Begin The Beguine, Eddie Heywood ✭✭✭
Hop, Skip And Jump, Roy Milton & His Solid Senders ✭✭
Tenderly, Anita O’Day ✭✭✭
Tenderly, Bill Coleman ✭
Tenderly, Sarah Vaughan ✭✭✭
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, George Barnes ✭✭
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Platters ✭✭
What Is This Thing Called Love? (Live), Charlie Parker ✭✭
What Is This Thing Called Love?, Frank Sinatra ✭