Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Shaw, Artie (Arthur Jacob Arshawsky)

Clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw was one of the biggest stars of the Swing Era, yet seemed to chafe at his success. His virtuosic playing combined classical and jazz influences, and he was one of the first to tour with an integrated band. A literate introvert, he retired from music several times and worked as a writer during the last decades of his life.

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born on May 23rd, 1910 in New York City on the Lower East Side. The only child born to Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria, he grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. Shaw developed an interest in music at a young age and began playing the ukulele.

His father abandoned the family during Arthur's childhood, and the boy also endured strong anti-Semitism from his classmates in Connecticut. As a result, by his own account Shaw was very introverted and shy growing up as a child. He began playing the tenor saxophone in his early teenage years, and eventually settled on the clarinet.

By the time he was fifteen, Shaw was playing alto saxophone in Johnny Cavallaro’s band. In 1926, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he soon gained a reputation as a solid musician while working with violinist Austin Wylie. Shaw, who always kept an interest in reading and literature, won an essay contest in 1928 and traveled to Hollywood.

While in California, Shaw played with several members of the Irving Aaronson band. He joined Aaronson's band the following year, and stayed with them through 1930. While in Aaronson’s band the young clarinetist was exposed to the music of Stravinsky. This association left a lasting impression, as Shaw would incorporate strings and classical forms into his music for the remainder of his career.

Between 1931 and 1935, Shaw lived in New York City for the most part freelancing as a session musician. Some of the musicians Shaw worked with included Red Norvo and Shaw is heard on the single “I Surrender, Dear," which was recorded in September of 1934.

Shaw left New York briefly to focus on writing, and lived for a time in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but he would return to New York. In 1936, Shaw was invited to share the bill with Glenn Miller at the Imperial Theater, and the band he put together for the show included a string section, a rhythm section, and clarinet. They performed Shaw’s chamber music composition “Interlude in Bb.” While the show was well-received, the sound was not commercial and Shaw was forced to dissolve his band in early 1937.

Shaw recorded for the Brunswick label in the summer of 1936 with a young singer named Billie Holiday. Holiday stayed with Shaw through 1938, and these 1936 small-group sessions produced the songs “Summertime" and “Did I Remember." Shaw also recorded several sides in December of 1936, which included “Sweet Lorraine."

With the Swing Era gathering momentum by 1938, Shaw developed a heated rivalry with fellow clarinetist Benny Goodman, which may have led to some of his best and best-loved music. While critics dubbed Benny Goodman the “King of Swing,” Shaw was dubbed the “King of the Clarinet.” Shaw famously commented, in reference to Goodman that, “He plays clarinet. I play music!”

In July of 1938, Shaw went into the studio and recorded Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine."The single ended up selling several million copies and brought Shaw nationwide fame, but he began to develop a distaste for the music industry and celebrity life. Ironically, the period of his greatest fame was also the period of his greatest discomfort with the music business.

Shaw toured the southern United States in 1938 with Billie Holiday, but she left the band because of the hostility and racism they faced from white audiences on tour. Shaw recorded a string of hit singles from late 1938 into 1940, which include “Jungle Drums," “Traffic Jam,” “Summit Ridge Drive,” “Stardust" and “Frenesi." “Frenesi” was recorded after Shaw heard the song in Mexico, while on a self-induced sabbatical from the music industry.

Music wasn’t the only aspect of Shaw’s career on the rise. In 1939 he met and married his first wife, starlet Lana Turner, on the set of the film Dancing Coed , for which he wrote the score. They divorced several months later. In 1940, he wrote the score and collaborated with Johnny Mercer on the song “Love of My Life,” which was used in the film Second Chorus, and Shaw received two Academy Award nominations for his work on the movie.

After World War II began, Shaw joined the Navy not long after he wed composer Jerome Kern’s daughter, Elizabeth. While in the military, Shaw traveled for eighteen months throughout the South Pacific entertaining soldiers. He played in battle zones and performed upwards of four concerts a day.

Shaw was given a medical discharge in 1944, and it’s rumored that he suffered from severe mental breakdown after his affiliation with the military. In 1945, Shaw wed actress and sex symbol Ava Gardner. As with the other marriages in his life, this one didn’t last much longer than a year. Shaw remarried soon after to writer Kathleen Winsor.

In the late 1940s, as the Swing Era waned, Shaw made far less recordings and appearances, but he did manage to make a comeback in 1949. These sessions produced the song “Aesop’s Foibles," and he toured with a new band which featured songs written in the bebop style, with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.

Shaw effectively ‘retired’ from the music industry in the 1950s though he would return in the 1980s. He published his autobiography The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity in 1952 and began a moderately successful career as a writer of fiction and non-fiction.

Shaw spent the late 1950s and most of the 1960s living with his eighth and final wife, actress Evelyn Keyes, in Spain. He published a series of books in the 1960s, and by 1970 he had separated from Keyes and moved to Newbury Park, California, where he remained up until his death in 2004. Shaw was sort of a renaissance man outside of music. On top of being a writer and musician, he was an expert fly fisher and a marksman. Fans cheered in 1981, when he came out of retirement to play and conduct the reformed Artie Shaw Orchestra, under the direction of clarinetist Dick Johnson.

Arshawsky, known to his wives, fans, musicians, and critics as Artie Shaw, died on December 30th, 2004 from complications of diabetes. He left behind a strong and complex legacy of music, which rewards and surprises attentive listeners.

Select Discography

(all singles)

as Artie Shaw

Begin the Beguine (RCA/Victor, 1938)

Any Old Time (RCA/Victor, 1938)

Nightmare (RCA/Victor, 1939)

Stardust (RCA/Victor, 1940)

Frenesi (RCA/Victor, 1940)

Contributor: Jared Pauley