December 31, 2004 by

Artie Shaw


Categories: Musicians

ashaw.jpgArtie Shaw, a jazz clarinetist who became the highest paid bandleader of the Big Band era, died on Dec. 29 of natural causes. He was 94.
Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, the New York native began playing the alto saxophone at 14. A few months later, he switched to the clarinet, the instrument that made him famous.
Shaw was playing for the CBS radio orchestra in 1935 when he was asked to form a small group that would play while the band onstage was changed. Their rendition of his song, “Interlude in B Flat,” brought down the house. Inspired by this reception, Shaw put together a combination of clarinet, strings and drums, and topped the charts with a recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.”
But success had its pitfalls, and soon Shaw was overcome by the demands of celebrity. He missed his privacy the most and in 1940, moved to Acapulco to get away from the madness of fame. After three months of peace and quiet, however, the media found him when he saved a woman from drowning. Since he was contracted to produce six more recordings for RCA Victor, Shaw returned to the states and formed a 31-piece studio band that released the hit song “Frenesi.”
The success of this tune allowed Shaw to create the Gramercy Five, a traveling band named after the New York telephone exchange at the time. They recorded the hits “Mysterioso,” “Nightmare,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?,” “Star Dust,” “Summit Ridge Drive” and “My Funny Valentine.”
At his peak in the 1930s and ’40s, Shaw earned $60,000/week. He worked with numerous jazz legends, including Mel Torme, Joe Bushkin and Barney Kessel, and shocked all-white audiences in the South when he hired Billie Holiday to sing with his band. Shaw was wooed to Hollywood, as well, and appeared in half a dozen films. He received two Academy Award nominations for his soundtrack contributions to the musical “Second Chorus.”
Shaw enlisted in the Navy after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During World War II, he culled together a group of civilian musicians to perform for the troops stationed in the Pacific. Despite this military service, Shaw was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. The outspoken liberal admitted that he had attended a couple of Communist meetings after the war, but never joined the party or gave it any money.
Shaw left the music business several times, then put down his clarinet for good in 1954. After that, he became a cattle rancher, a dairy farmer, a film producer, a lecturer on the college circuit and an author. Shaw published two short story collections (“I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead: Variations on a Theme” and “The Best of Intentions”), and the autobiography, “The Trouble With Cinderella.” He spent many years working on an unpublished novel about a troubled young jazz musician named Albie Snow. In 2004, Shaw received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Shaw was also famous for his matrimonial endeavors. Married eight times, his good looks and talent led to partnerships with four actresses (Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes) and novelist Kathleen Winsor (“Forever Amber”). All but one of his marriages ended in divorce; his marriage to Jane Carns was annulled.
In his 90s, Shaw penned his own epitaph for “Who’s Who in America”: “He did the best he could with the material at hand.” He later edited it down to two words: “Go away.”
Listen to a Tribute From NPR
Artie Shaw & Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five Download MP3s From Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five

4 Responses to Artie Shaw

  1. Jean Adler

    I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Shaw for my master’s thesis in 2002. Now that he has passed away I realize just how fortunate I was that he said yes to my interview. Artie was a fascinating man. He was very kind to me, funny, and charming. He was a week away from turning 92 when I met him. I have always been told what a crabby old goat he could be. But, with me he wasn’t, although he sure knew how to curse.
    Thanks Artie for the wonderful afternoon.

  2. M. Kuhar

    Most of today’s world will not realise how important Artie Shaw is to music; but keep in mind that they will be playing his recordings long after current fads and nonmusical styles have come and gone. True talent will always be with us. The last of the Big Band legends has left us.

  3. Robert J. McClean

    I love Artie Shaw’s music and the legacy that he left. I bet I listen to his music at least once a week. My favorites are “Nightmare”, ” Stardust”,and “Moonglow” I am only 42 yrs. old. But I love the Big Band Era. You have to respect a man who was considered such a genius and who decided to give it all up. I feel thatt he was a true artist as opposed to just a “give em’ what they want entertainer who was out to make a quick buck. This was evident with his band within a band Gramercy Five. Who would have ever thought of using a harpsicord ? Anyway, I dreamt of meeting him or just e-mailing him, but instead I will continue to listen to his wonderful and technically perfect music. I love you Artie and thanks.

  4. Mike Pacey

    The two great clarinettists of the Swing Era were undoubtedly Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and they had a mutual admiration for their playing. It is difficult to say who was the better player as they had different styles. Benny was superior as a jazz clarinettist but Artie’s playing had more of a lyrical quality – or if you like – Benny could make the clarinet talk but Artie made it say something. Thank goodness we have been left a wealth of recordings for us to appreciate and enjoy their great talent.

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