Artie Shaw: The Temperamental Grumpyman of Swing

If bandleader Tommy Dorsey was known as “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing”, then fellow bandleader Artie Shaw well could have deserved the moniker “The “Temperamental Grumpyman of Swing”.

Widely regarded as one of jazz’s finest clarinetists alongside performers like Benny Goodman, Shaw led one of the most popular big bands of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. While Shaw enjoyed success with a number of hit recordings, no doubt his most popular was a 1940 recording of Hoggy Carmichael’s “Stardust”, which came just two years after  Shaw’s first big hit, Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”. Prior to the 1938 release of the Cole tune, Shaw and his band had labored as a largely unknown territory band. “Begin the Beguine” made Shaw and his orchestra one of the first true “overnight sensations”, the record becoming one of the big band era’s defining recordings.

Artie Shaw born in New York City in May of 1910 to Sarah and Harold Arshawsky, a dressmaker and photographer. Artie’s father was from Russia, his mother from Austria. As a teenager Shaw worked in a grocery store and with his earnings bought a clarinet. By the age of 16 the young Shaw was proficient enough to join a touring band. From the mid-1920’s on Shaw performed with many bands and orchestras. In 1929 he went to work for Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music, which he would later incorporate in his arrangements. In 1932, Shaw joined the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra and made several recordings including “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Fit as a Fiddle”. At the height of his popularity, Shaw earned up to $60,000 per week.

A musical perfectionist, Shaw drove his band members hard, and he disliked having to be a part of the celebrity culture of the time. He openly despised his fans as “tasteless jitterbugs that would dance to the beat of a windshield wiper”, once telling a New York Times reporter “I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could (play) what I wanted, but all they wanted (to hear) was ‘Begin the Beguine'”. Shaw valued experimental and innovative music over dance and love songs. Musically restless, Shaw was considered an early jazz innovator, blending elements of traditional classical and more modern jazz forms in many of the short-lived incarnations of his band.

As a bandleader, Shaw helped further the careers of a number of outstanding big band performers, including drummers Buddy Rich and Davey Tough, vocalists Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, Mel Tormé, and arranger Ray Conniff. In 1938 Shaw broke the color barrier when he signed Billie Holiday as the band’s female vocalist, becoming the first white band leader to hire a full-time black female singer. However, Holiday’s tenure was a short one, as racial hostility from audiences in the South eventually forced Billie to quit, but not before launching her own solo career. In 1938, Down Beat magazine readers voted Artie Shaw’s the best swing band.

A musical innovator, Shaw fashioned a smaller “band within the band” in 1940, naming it “Artie Shaw & the Gramercy Five” after his home telephone exchange. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. The Gramercy Five’s biggest hit was “Summit Ridge Drive”, one of Shaw’s many million-selling singles.

During World War II, Shaw served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1944 leading a morale-building band touring the South Pacific (similar to Glenn Miller in England) and after his discharge in 1944, he returned to lead a civilian band through 1945. Following the breakup of that band, he began to focus on other interests including that of writing novels and Artie gradually withdrew from the music world, although he remained a force in popular music and jazz until his passing.

Throughout his career, Shaw had a habit of forming bands, developing them according to his musical whims, and then disbanding. Apart from his interest in music, Shaw had a tremendous intellect and an insatiable thirst for knowledge and literature. During his self-imposed “musical sabbaticals”, he often studied science and advanced mathematics. In 1954, Shaw undertook a brief Australian tour sharing the bill with drummer Buddy Rich and Ella Fitzgerald. After completing that tour Shaw stopped playing the clarinet, citing his own perfectionism, which, he later said, would have killed him. He explained to a reporter, “…Compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I’m not able to do that, and I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice.”

The handsome bandleader married eight times. Before eloping with Lana Turner in 1940, Shaw briefly dated actress Judy Garland. After his brief marriage to Turner, he married Betty Kern (the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern) from 1942–43; actress Ava Gardner from 1945–46; ‘Forever Amber’ author Kathleen Winsor from 1946–48; and actress Doris Dowling 1952–56. By far Shaw’s longest lasting marriage was to actress Evelyn Keyes from 1957 until 1985. Both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner described Shaw as being extremely emotionally abusive.

In 1983, the 73-year-old Shaw returned to his musical roots, organizing a band and installing clarinetist Dick Johnson as soloist. Shaw appeared with the band at first, limiting his role to front man and leaving the clarinet playing duties to Johnson. By 1987 though, Shaw was no longer touring with the band, content that leader Johnson and the band kept true to Shaw’s musical vision. He would, however, show up on occasion “just to hear how things sounded”.

Shaw was a precision marksman, ranking fourth in the United States in 1962, and an expert fly fisherman. In 2004, he received Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Artie Shaw died on December 30, 2004 at the age of 94. Shaw had long been suffering from diabetes.