Artie Shaw

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs

Shaw or Goodman? Goodman or Shaw? The big debate rages on even fifty years after Shaw retired from playing the clarinet. It’s an argument that can’t be won. Shaw appreciated Goodman but saw himself as a better interpreter. "The distance between me and Benny," Shaw proclaimed, "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." Most admit that Shaw was the more progressive musician.

His intelligence, high standards, and outspokenness made him a fascinating figure.

Shaw certainly had the more interesting life. Married eight times, he was constantly torn between playing music and becoming a writer. His intelligence, high standards, and outspokenness made him a fascinating figure. And then he disappeared and, like Garbo, became even more fascinating. Few actually believed that Shaw would keep his word when he set down his clarinet for the last time in the mid ‘50s, since he had already quit and returned to music repeatedly. But he had finally had enough, and moved on to apply his intellect to a wide variety of other endeavors.

Shaw had first walked off the bandstand in December 1939, when he left his post at the Café Rouge in New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania and anonymously retired to Acapulco, Mexico, then a sleepy coastal town. Unfortunately for Shaw, after three months he saved a woman from drowning and the world discovered him again. After the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Shaw quit music again to join the struggle, but the Navy had other ideas. After a stint as a minesweeper, he was assigned to create a service band. In 1943, after almost getting blown up at Guadalcanal, they were sent home, many, including Shaw, with a medical discharge due stress and fatigue.

He set up another band, this one featuring jazz great Roy Eldridge, but gave it up again in 1947. He spent the next few years recording and performing classical music with the country’s top symphony orchestras. In 1949 he returned to the big band business and quit again in 1951, this time buying a dairy farm and working on his autobiography. Over the next few years he dabbled in music now and then, with new groups. In March of 1954 Shaw put down his clarinet and vowed never to pick it up again. It was a promise he kept.

Shaw spent the rest of his life on a variety of interesting pursuits. He moved to Spain in 1955, following harrassment by the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee. He returned to the States in 1960. His wide-ranging intellect led him to mini-careers in cattle ranching, writing, film distribution and production (he produced the 1964 hit movie Séance on a Wet Afternoon), and even acting (in the 1978 disaster film, Crash). He wrote three books and was working on an autobiographical novel in which, at the end of 90 chapters, the protagonist was still only 25! At the time of his death, his library contained more than 15,000 books.

Shaw traveled the nation delivering lectures to college students on such subjects as “The Artist in a Material Society," "The Swingers of the Big Band Era," "Psychotherapy and the Creative Artist," and "Consecutive Monogamy and Ideal Divorce.” He became an expert marksman, a champion fly fisherman, and opened a rifle range.

Perhaps the only person who could really sum up the life and work of this restless, uncompromising artist is the man himself, so read on, and marvel at Artie Shaw. (KB)

I just happened to like it

When Artie Shaw recorded the Jerry Gray arrangement at his first session for Victor, it got a tepid response. Shaw explained, “I just happened to like it so I insisted on recording it at this first session, in spite of the recording manager, who thought it a complete waste of time, and only let me make it after I had argued it would make a least a nice quiet contrast to the ‘Indian Love Call’ [on the B side]. That recording of that one little tune … was the real turning point in my life.”Begin the Beguine

It's not over?

Songwriter Cole Porter and librettist Moss Hart took an around-the-world cruise on the Franconia in order to write the musical Jubilee. While in the Dutch East Indies, Porter heard a native dance and was taken by its unique rhythm. He wrote “Begin the Beguine” and played it for Hart, who later admitted, “I had reservations about the length of the song. Indeed, I am somewhat ashamed to record that I thought it had ended when he was only halfway through playing it.”Begin the Beguine

Mexican vacation

 While traveling through Mexico on vacation, Shaw discovered the tune “Frenesi” by Alberto Dominguez, and recorded it in 1940 to great success. Ray Charles and Bob Russell supplied an English lyric.Frenesi

Close to perfect

Shaw to Sam Litzinger of CBS Radio: "If I had to say something was perfect musically, the solo I did on ‘Stardust’ is as close to being perfect as I would have wanted."Stardust

Sitting on the wall

In 1927, Hoagy Carmichael was sitting on the “spooning wall” of Indiana University pining for a girl named Dorothy. He ran to an old upright piano in The Book Nook and finished the song. A great story but apparently not true. Carmichael appears to have been working on the song since 1926. He even wrote a lyric to the tune which contained the words “Star Dust melody.” However and wherever it happened, Carmichael recorded it in 1927 for Gannett Records. Publisher Irving Mills took the song to Mitchell Parish and with its melody slowed down Parish wrote new lyrics for the tune. Carmichael’s friend (and lyricist for “Georgia on My Mind”), Stuart Gorrell, came up with the title, “Star Dust,” as the melody reminded him of “dust from stars drifting down through the summer sky.”

In 1936 RCA pressed what must certainly be one of the most unique records of all time—“Star Dust” on both the A and B sides of a 78 with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra on one side and Tommy Dorsey’s on the flip.Stardust

As if it dialed a phone number

Johnny Mercer to the BBC: When I was working with Benny Goodman back in ’39, I had a publicity guy who told me he had been to hear Father Divine, and that was the subject of his sermon, “Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Well, that amused me so, and it sounds so Southern and so funny that I wrote it down on a piece of paper. And this was, what, five years later? And Harold Arlen and I were riding home from the studio after a conference about getting a song for the sailors. … And Harold was singing me this little tune he had sung me before. Now, that’s a strange thing about your subconscious, because here’s a song that’s kind of lying dormant in my subconscious for five years, and the minute he sang that tune, it jumped into my mind as if it dialed a phone number. Because it doesn’t really fit. The accent is all different. I just think there’s some kind of fate connected with it.Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive

Good enough ain’t good enough

"The big problem for some people—and unfortunately I'm one of them—is that you eventually reach a point where you're never satisfied with what you're doing, You finally get to where good enough ain't good enough."Artie Shaw

Pays good

"Sure it stinks, but it pays good dough, so the hell with it."Artie Shaw

Never understood

"I could never understand why people wanted to dance to my music. I made it good enough to listen to."Artie Shaw

I sought perfection

"I am compulsive, I sought perfection. I was constantly miserable. I was seeking a constantly receding horizon. So I quit. It was like cutting off an arm that had gangrene. I had to cut it off to live. I'd be dead if I didn't stop. The better I got, the higher I aimed. People loved what I did, but I had grown past it. I got to the point where I was walking in my own footsteps."Artie Shaw

Swing was a publicist’s word

"Swing was a publicist's word. When they talk about 'swing music' that was jazz music, and there were big bands playing it and small bands playing it. But jazz must swing and if it doesn't swing, it isn't jazz. That's why swing is, as far as I'm concerned, a verb and not an adjective and not a noun.
 'Begin the Beguine' is a pretty nice tune. But after you've played it five hundred times in a row it gets a little dull. If you are reduced to packaging what you do as a commodity, and involved in selling it to a vast audience, you are in serious trouble.

It’s time to debunk swing. Let’s take all the nonsense, the ballyhoo and jive jargon out of it. The two outstanding types of swing that are now being played often merit the ridicule and somewhat harsh criticsm directed from more erudite circles. The first type of swing is that which attempts to blast off the roof. Here is what I consider grating music. Offensive to most ears and definitely of the musically punch-drunk variety, it is an out-and-out menace. The second classification bears the alliterative titles of 'smooth' or 'sophisticated' swing. For sheer monotony, I don’t think that this type of music can be surpassed. There is no attempt at color or ingenuity.

Swing—and I mean real swing—is an idiom designed to make songs more listenable and more danceable than they are in their original form. It is, in sum, the creation and sustenance of a mood. In it, there are blasting, purring, subtlety, obviousness—each in its proper place. That is what swing means and it will remain only if it continues to explore all the potentialities of a composition, whether it be by Bach or Duke Ellington. The only difference between swing and all other forms of music is that in swing an instrumentalist uses improvisations to improve the melody.

What the swing musician says to the composer is this: ‘See here! I’ve got something to say, too. Let me express my own musical ideas. I’ll take your melody but let me see if I can create something artistic around it. Let me invent something new.'"Artie Shaw

It’s the music

"People ask what those women saw in me, 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?"Artie Shaw

I’m an expert on divorce

"I know nothing about marriage, but I'm an expert on divorce.... None of them were real marriages. They were legalized affairs. In those days you couldn't get a lease on an apartment if you were living in sin."Artie Shaw

Somebody’s got to get the coffee

"These love goddesses are not what they seem, especially if you're married to one. They all think they want a traditional marriage, but they aren't married for that sort of thing. Somebody's got to get the coffee in the morning, and an Ava Gardner is not going to do that. So you get up and get it, and then you find you're doing everything."Artie Shaw

I play music

 “You play the clarinet. I play music.”Artie Shaw to Benny Goodman

I want to vomit

 "If anyone comes up to me and says, 'Oh, I just love your “Begin the Beguine,”’ I want to vomit."Artie Shaw

The king

"Jesus Christ, king of the clarinet, and his band."Billie Holiday

We gonna pass each other

"Some day I'm gonna be walkin' up the street one way and you gonna be comin' down the other way, and we gonna pass each other and I'm gonna say, 'Hello, best white band in the worl,' and you gonna say, 'Hello, best colored band in the worl' -- you know that."Chick Webb to Artie Shaw

Beneath him

"He never missed a chance to complain that it was beneath him to appear in a Hollywood movie. The crew plotted to drop an arc light on his head."Lana Turner

Bookmark and Share

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Recordings
Stardust
Hoagy Carmichael at the piano
Stardust (Intro for The Fabled 24 September 1940 San Francisco Concerts)
Intro for Hoagy Carmichael
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD