Artie Shaw Biography

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, 23 May 1910, East Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA, d. 30 December 2004, Newbury Park, California, USA. The son of an Austrian mother and a Russian father, Arshawsky was born in New York but relocated with his family to New Haven, Connecticut while still a child. He learned to play the ukulele before taking up the alto saxophone at the age of 12, and a few years later was playing in a Connecticut dance band. In 1926, and now known as Art Shaw, he switched to clarinet and spent the next three years working in Cleveland, Ohio, as arranger and musical director for Austin Wylie. He also played in Hollywood with Irving Aaronson’s Commanders, doubling on tenor saxophone. In New York from the end of 1929, Shaw became a regular at after-hours sessions, sitting in with leading jazzmen and establishing a reputation as a technically brilliant clarinettist. He made numerous record sessions with dance bands and jazz musicians including Teddy Wilson, with whom he appeared on some of Billie Holiday’s sessions.

After briefly dropping out of the music business and buying a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Shaw returned to session work in New York. In 1935, Shaw formed a band which included strings for a concert and, with the addition of regular dance band instruments, secured a recording contract. The band did not last long and in April 1937 he formed a conventional big band that was an immediate success, owing in part to melodic arrangements by violinist Jerry Gray. The band made several records including a 1938 version of Cole Porter’s ‘Begin The Beguine’, which was a huge popular success. Other popular hits included versions of ‘Moonglow’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and ‘Stardust’. Musically, Shaw’s band was one of the best of the period and, during the first couple of years of its existence, included Johnny Best, Cliff Leeman, Les Robinson, Georgie Auld, Tony Pastor and Buddy Rich. During 1938 Shaw briefly had Holiday as the band’s singer, but racial discrimination in New York hotels and on the band’s radio shows led to a succession of disagreeable confrontations that eventually compelled the singer to quit. Other singers Shaw used were Kitty Kallen (b. 25 May 1922) and Helen Forrest.

Always uneasy with publicity and the demands of the public, Shaw abruptly folded the band in December 1939 and moved to Acapulco, Mexico, but a featured role in the 1940 Fred Astaire /Paulette Goddard film, Second Chorus, brought another hit, ‘Frenesi’, and Academy Award nominations for the score and the song ‘Love Of My Life’. Shaw quickly formed a new band which included a string section and a band-within-a-band, the Gramercy Five. The big band included Billy Butterfield, Jack Jenney, Nick Fatool and Johnny Guarnieri. In the small group, Guarnieri switched from piano to harpsichord to create a highly distinctive sound. More successful records followed, including ‘Concerto For Clarinet’, ‘Summit Ridge Drive’ and ‘Special Delivery Stomp’. Shaw’s dislike of celebrity caused him to disband once again, but he soon regrouped, only to be forced to fold when the USA entered the war. In 1942 he headed a band in the US Navy that included several leading jazzmen, and also served on a minesweeper and toured the south Pacific. After the war he formed a new band that featured Roy Eldridge, Dodo Marmarosa, Barney Kessel, Chuck Gentry, Stan Fishelson and other top musicians, in addition to arranger Ray Conniff. This band, like all the others, was short-lived and during the rest of the 40s Shaw periodically formed bands only to break them up again within a few months.

By the end of the decade Shaw was studying classical guitar and had begun to develop a secondary career as a writer. In the mid-50s he retired from music and spent much of his time writing, having already published a well-received autobiography (The Trouble With Cinderella) in 1952. He lived for a number of years in Spain where he operated a farm and worked in film distribution, but in the late 60s returned to the USA where he continued to expand his writing career, publishing a collection of novellas. In the mid-70s he moved to Newbury Park near Los Angeles, where he lectured in universities, worked as a film producer and screenwriter, and made a screen appearance in the 1978 television movie Crash. In the early 80s he reassembled a band, under the direction of Dick Johnson, with Shaw conducting but not playing clarinet. In 1985, Brigitte Berman’s film documentary, Time Is All You’ve Got, traced his career in detail. In June 1992 he appeared in London, England at a concert performance where Bob Wilber recreated some of his music. During his latter years Shaw suffered from adult onset diabetes and had gone blind shortly before his death in December 2004.

During the late 30s and early 40s Shaw was set up as a rival to Benny Goodman, but the antagonism was a creation of publicists; in reality, the two men were amicable towards one another. Nevertheless, fans of the pair were divided, heatedly arguing the merits of their respective idol. Stylistically, Shaw’s playing was perhaps slightly cooler than Goodman’s, although his jazz sense was no less refined. Like Goodman, Shaw was a technical marvel, playing with remarkable precision, yet always swinging. His erratic band leading career, allied as it was to a full private life - among his eight wives were some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, including Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes, in addition to novelist Kathleen Winsor and Jerome Kern’s daughter Elizabeth - militated against his ever achieving the same level of success as Goodman or many other band leading contemporaries. Nevertheless, his bands were always musicianly and his frequent hiring of black musicians, including Holiday, Eldridge and Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page, helped to break down racial barriers in music.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.