| December 30, 2004 |
Artie Shaw, Big Band Leader, Dies at 94
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Artie Shaw, the jazz clarinetist and big-band leader who successfully challenged Benny Goodman's reign as the King of Swing with his recordings of "Begin the Beguine," "Lady Be Good" and "Star Dust" in the late 1930's, died today, his orchestra's manager, Will Curtis, said. He was 94 and lived in Newbury Park, Calif.
Unparalleled, but Not Unrivaled, as a Clarinetist
By JOHN S. WILSON
Although Mr. Shaw's musical career closely tracked that of Mr. Goodman, his archrival, who died in 1986, the two men had little in common in their approaches to music.
"The distance between me and Benny," Mr. Shaw said several years ago, "was that I was trying to play a musical thing, and Benny was trying to swing. Benny had great fingers; I'd never deny that. But listen to our two versions of 'Star Dust.' I was playing; he was swinging."
Mr. Shaw impressed and amazed clarinetists of all schools. Barney Bigard, the New Orleans clarinetist who was Duke Ellington's soloist for 14 years, said he considered Mr. Shaw the greatest clarinetist ever. Phil Woods, a saxophonist of the be-bop era, took Charlie Parker as his inspiration on saxophone, but he modeled his clarinet playing on Mr. Shaw's. John Carter, a leading post-bop clarinetist, said he took up the instrument because of Mr. Shaw.
And in 1983, when Franklin Cohen, the principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra, was to be featured in a performance of Mr. Shaw's composition "Concerto for Clarinet," he listened to Mr. Shaw's recording of the work and said he found his playing unbelievable.
"Shaw is the greatest player I ever heard," he said. "It's hard to play the way he plays. It's not an overblown orchestral style. He makes so many incredible shadings."
Mr. Shaw and Mr. Goodman were born a year apart (Goodman in 1909; Mr. Shaw in 1910) into similar circumstances - both were sons of Jewish-immigrant parents living in the ghettoes of two major American cities. Mr. Shaw grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; Goodman on the west side of Chicago. They began playing professionally as teen-agers, and by 1926 they were both far from home performing with major bands of the day: Goodman in Venice, Calif., with Ben Pollack; Mr. Shaw in Cleveland with Austin Wylie.
In the Depression era, they settled in New York City and were the top two choices for the woodwind sections of radio-network and recording-studio orchestras. Frequently, they sat side by side in these ensembles.
By then, however, Mr. Shaw had decided that music was a dead end. He intended to be a writer, and he had become a voracious reader. At band rehearsals, his music rack often held a book he was reading along with the compositions he was playing. When the orchestra was given a break and the other musicians went out for a smoke or a drink, Mr. Shaw stayed in his seat, reading such authors as Thorstein Veblen.
But his interests reverted to music after he was asked to play at a concert at the Imperial Theater in New York in May 1935. It was called a swing concert, and it included such well-known swing bands as the Casa Loma Orchestra and the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby. Although Mr. Shaw was not yet known to much of the public, he was asked to put together a small group to play while the band onstage was changed.
"Just for kicks, I thought I'd write a piece for clarinet and string quartet, plus a small rhythm section," Mr. Shaw recalled. "Nobody had ever done that, sort of a jazz chamber-music thing."
His "Interlude in B Flat" brought down the house. The audience refused to stop applauding, but Mr. Shaw had nothing else to play because this was the only thing he had written for the group. Finally, they played it again.
On the basis of this success, he was urged to form a band. He was uninterested until he learned that with a successful band he could earn as much as $25,000 in six months, which was the sum he had told a booking agent he needed to complete his education.
The band he formed was an enlargement of the group he had used at the concert: a string quartet and his clarinet, with one trumpet, one saxophone and a rhythm section. But when he arrived in the real world of dance halls and nightclubs, he found himself bucking a tide that clamored for what he later described as "chewing drummers and loud swing fanaticism." So he formed a new band with the same instrumentation as Benny Goodman's, promising it would be "the loudest band in the whole damn world."
With the new ensemble, he got a new name. Originally named Arthur Arshawsky, he had already shortened that to Art Shaw professionally. But when he became a band leader on radio, there were complaints that announcements of his name sounded like a sneeze. So he made one more change, to Artie Shaw.
As this band developed during a long run at the Roseland-State Ballroom in Boston, the original concept changed to a concentration on smoothly swinging treatments of the music of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Vincent Youmans and other composers who gave the musical theater a golden age in the 1920's and 30's.
This new concept was epitomized in an arrangement by Jerry Gray, a violinist in Mr. Shaw's original string-quartet band, of "Begin the Beguine." Released in the fall of 1938, Mr. Shaw's recording of the Porter song became a classic of swing-era jazz and allowed him to take over the swing band pre-eminence that Mr. Goodman had held for three years.
Mr. Shaw, however, was not prepared to put up with the enthusiastic demands of his fans, the bobby-soxers who mobbed him and tore his clothes, and whom he called morons.
The tension finally led to his walking off the bandstand at the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City during a band engagement in December 1939, and disappearing.
"I wanted to resign from the planet, not just music," he said later. "It stopped being fun with success. Money got in the way. Everybody got greedy, including me. Fear set in. I got miserable when I became a commodity."
He disappeared by going to what was then a little-known village in Mexico - Acapulco - where he was ignored for three months until he rescued a woman from drowning and reporters found out who he was. Then he returned to his home in Hollywood.
He owed RCA Victor six more recordings on his contract, so he formed a 31-piece studio band with 13 strings and recorded, among other things, a tune he had heard a group playing on a wharf in Acapulco. It was called "Frenesi," and like "Begin the Beguine," it set off a new career for him just when he was trying to get out of an old one.
The success of "Frenesi" meant he had to form a traveling band once again. This one included a small group, the Gramercy Five, a variation of Mr. Goodman's small groups except that it included a jazz harpsichord, played by John Guarnieri.
In December 1941, Mr. Shaw flew to California and married Elizabeth Kern, the daughter of Jerome Kern, before enlisting in the Navy. After an initial period of anonymity in the service, he became a chief petty officer and was ordered to form a band. When he heard the band members he had been given, he went AWOL ("tacitly," as he said) to see the Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal.
"I want to get into the war!" Mr. Shaw told him. "And if I have to run a band, I want it to be good."
Mr. Shaw left the meeting with permission to enlist a band to be taken to the Pacific. He recruited some of the best musicians he had worked with in civilian life, including Claude Thornhill, Dave Tough, Sam Donahue and Max Kaminsky. The band played up and down the Pacific, on tiny islands and in jungles. It played so relentlessly that in 1943 it was sent to New Zealand to rest. A year later it was disbanded, and Mr. Shaw received a medical discharge.
During the next 10 years he formed several short-lived bands, including one that played modern classical music in a New York jazz club called Bop City, and one that was in tune with the be-bop era but that was scorned by audiences who had come to hear "Begin the Beguine" and "Frenesi."
In March 1954, after an engagement with a small group at the Embers in New York, he announced his retirement at the age of 43. He never performed again, although in 1983 he formed an Artie Shaw Orchestra to play his old arrangements and some newer music. It was directed by Dick Johnson, a saxophonist and clarinetist, and Mr. Shaw appeared with it occasionally as a nonplaying conductor.
"I did all you can do with a clarinet," he said in a 1994 interview. "Any more would have been less."
Two years before his retirement, he wrote a well-received autobiography, "The Trouble With Cinderella."
He continued to write, and published two books of short stories, "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead," and "The Best of Intentions," and had begun a three-volume novel about a troubled young musician. He became a cattle farmer, a producer and distributor of films, a successful competitor in shooting high-powered target rifles, and a lecturer on the college circuit offering a choice of four subjects: "The Artist in a Material Society," "The Swingers of the Big Band Era," "Psychotherapy and the Creative Artist" and "Consecutive Monogamy and Ideal Divorce," in which he presented himself as "the ex-husband of love goddesses and an authority on divorce."
His source material for this last lecture came from his experience with eight wives, who included, in addition to Miss Kern, three movie stars (Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes) and an author (Kathleen Winsor, who wrote the 1940's best seller "Forever Amber").
"People ask what those women saw in me," Mr. Shaw said in an interview with The New York Times. "Let's face it, I wasn't a bad-looking stud. But that's not it. It's the music; it's standing up there under the lights. A lot of women just flip; looks have nothing to do with it. You call Mick Jagger good-looking?"
All his marriages ended in divorce.
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