Revisit Swing Era’s Finest: Artie Shaw – Softly as in a morning sunrise
Artie Shaw (born Artur Jacob Arshawsky, 1910-2004) was one of the top-grossing stars of the 1930s and the only serious rival Benny Goodman had to his title as “The King of Swing.”
As a teen-aged free-lance musician in New York in the 1920s, Artie Shaw had a front-row seat for the unfolding of jazz history. He personally knew and admired Bix Beiderbecke and even roomed with him briefly. He was among an elite group of young, white “session men” in New York who found employment (even during the Depression years) in hotel ballroom dance bands, on popular radio shows and in recording studios. Among his colleagues were Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glen Miller—all of whom went on to lead major swing bands.
In the early 1930s, Shaw came under the mentorship of Harlem Stride pianist Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. Early in both their careers, Shaw developed a friendship with Billie Holiday. Later, he hired her to sing with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, and she became the first black vocalist to work full-time in an all-white band. Racial pressures proved to be too much to bear however, and Billie left the band shortly thereafter.
Following the example of Paul Whiteman before him, Artie Shaw’s first band featured a mixture of strings and winds, creating an innovative blend of jazz and classical elements. But Shaw’s first hit record, “Begin the Beguine,” was recorded with more conventional swing-band instrumentation with “killer-diller,” ‘hot’ arrangements that became a hallmark of his work.
As young musicians in New York, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman found themselves working side by side in the same orchestras, often competing for the same jobs. This competition only increased as the two clarinetists evolved into Swing Era stars.
Right from the start the agents and promoters had the notion that Artie was a great rival and competition for Benny Goodman. It wasn’t completely Artie’s idea to start this competition but it was real and it was in earnest and certainly Artie wanted to be number one and he did become number one, was voted the number one swing orchestra in the Down Beat poll in late 1938.
Among Shaw’s other ‘monster’ hit records of the 1930s were “Frenesi” and an arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust” that featured Artie’s clarinet, Billy Butterfield on trumpet and Jack Jenny on trombone. It was the most popular version of the already famous song. After Shaw it was a standard, a classic, an American evergreen. Jim Cullum on cornet and Ron Hockett on C-Melody Sax offer their very personal interpretation of “Star Dust” on this week’s radio show. Artie Shaw’s hits sold over 100 million records.
Artie Shaw quit playing in public after a spectacular and, as it turned out, final recording session with the Gramercy Five in 1954. After living in Europe for 6 years, he returned to a very different jazz scene in the US, with the advent of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Shaw felt out of place in this new world, and was very much against repeating the music he had created earlier.
Among Shaw’s eight beautiful wives, four were popular Hollywood actresses, the most well-known being Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, and the celebrity novelist Kathleen Winsor. But, typically, the stories of his romances garnered far more press than any mention of his artistic goals or literary interests, which even then were widening the gulf between him and his associates. Even at the height of his fame, he repeatedly broke up his bands and ran away from the “business,” hoping to flee the whirlwind of popularity and artistic frustrations that surrounded him.
Artie Shaw’s “Night and Day” (a Cole Porter composition) https://derlandstreicher.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/
An Artie Shaw great book review: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/open-ear-three-chords/