Artie Shaw, who rose to fame as one of the swing era’s finest bandleaders and most innovative clarinetists but then slammed the door on the music business with a Shakespearean flourish, died Thursday. He was 94.
Shaw, whose eight wives included such Hollywood legends as Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, died at his home in Newbury Park, Calif.
From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, Shaw formed, disbanded and reunited bands that made some of the most enduring recordings of the swing era, from his first hit in 1938 with Cole Porter’s haunting “Begin the Beguine” to his last recordings with the highly esteemed Gramercy Five, made in 1954 and released more than 30 years later.
Benny Goodman, another clarinetist bandleader of the swing era and a rival of Shaw, was perhaps more famous, which galled Shaw. But Shaw’s innovations, musical depth and swinging style placed him firmly in the pantheon of 20th century big band and jazz musicians.
“He was a real master of the clarinet, virtually incomparable in the beauty of his tone and unique in his flawless control,” said composer Gunther Schuller, who has written extensively about jazz.
Dan M. Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, ranked Shaw as “one of the outstanding clarinetists in the history of jazz – he was able to do things in the upper register – really go up – with great facility.”
“What was so remarkable about him,” Morgenstern continued, “is he always had a great band, and they were all great in their different ways, but each of them had their distinctive profile. … The bands were all wonderfully musical bands. … He really had a gift for that.”
Highest on many music buffs’ lists – and Shaw’s own – is the so-called 1949 band, one of his last, which expanded its scope well beyond the big band genre and other popular music.
By then, Shaw was so far ahead of his fans musically that he was forced to fire that band in order to hire a group that played the sort of popular songs Shaw hated, such as “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake.”
That group was to be his last big band.
Shaw continued to record for a short time with the elite Gramercy Five, which also included guitarist Tal Farlow, vibraphonist Joe Roland, bassist Tommy Potter, pianist Hank Jones and drummer Irv Kluger. But record companies were more interested in popular music, so the “last recordings,” as they came to be known, were not released at that time. In 1954, Shaw made good on oft-repeated threat to abandon his profession, leaving many mystified fans and critics.
Shaw’s stock answer to the oft-asked “Why?” was that “It was like having a gangrenous arm – I had to cut it off to survive.” He never again went before an audience to play the clarinet.
Still, decades after he left the music business, Shaw told friends, he would find himself working out chords on tunes like “All the Things You Are.” Or he would wake up ghost-fingering the clarinet.
The intellectual, intensely curious Shaw, a voracious reader, spent well over half of his life as a writer without distinction. Besides his 1952 autobiography, “The Trouble With Cinderella,” he published two books of novellas and, for 15 years, worked on a lengthy novel – still unpublished – based on his life as a musician. Echoing the thoughts of many, jazz writer Gene Lees, a longtime friend who eventually broke with the clarinetist, said: “Artie Shaw gave up being one of the most brilliant musicians ever to be a second-rate writer.”
Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born May 23, 1910, an only child of immigrant dressmakers; his mother was Austrian, his father Russian.
Shaw formed his first orchestra, which opened at the Lexington Hotel in 1935, around a string quartet. But the public wasn’t ready for such a unit.
Shaw’s second, more traditional dance band was Art Shaw and His New Music, which became Artie Shaw and His Orchestra. In 1938, that group recorded “Begin the Beguine,” a Cole Porter tune that Shaw remembered from the failed Broadway musical “Jubilee.” “Beguine” would make a celebrity out of Shaw – and haunt him until the day he died.
Shaw never seemed to enjoy his fame. At one point, he was making $30,000 a week and getting tens of thousands of fan letters. But he was also what he called “catnip for all those mobs of overexcited girls.” They pawed at him, pulling at his clothes. They followed him around.
“I was about as utterly miserable as a fellow can possibly be and still stay on this side of suicide,” he said.
As time went on, Shaw became openly contemptuous of his fans, famously blasting them in the New York Post for being jitterbugging “morons.” In 1939, he announced he was retiring and left for Mexico.
The disappearance by Shaw was big news – the New York Times referred to “the Shakespearean sweep” of his exodus, “a beautifully incautious burning of all his bridges behind him.”
The retirement didn’t last long. Unable to dodge success, he appeared as himself in the 1940 movie “Second Chorus,” and he was soon back on tour with another band.
Shaw told a friend that his real departure from music started in 1941, when he saw servicemen going off to war. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942, and served on a minesweeper before forming a band. “In the South Pacific, I saw death face to face,” Shaw said later. “It was never the same after that.” He was honorably discharged in 1944 after being hospitalized for exhaustion.
Shaw, who had already been married twice before he became famous, was busy pursuing beautiful women and marrying many of them.
Before the war, he had married the young Lana Turner. After the war, he divorced his fourth wife, Elizabeth Kern – the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern, with whom he had a son, Steven – and married Ava Gardner.
His last three marriages were to novelist Kathleen Winsor (“Forever Amber”); Doris Dowling, with whom he had a son, Jonathan; and actress Evelyn Keyes, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister in “Gone With the Wind.”
Shaw remained friends with some of the women in his life, but he found hateful names for Winsor, whom he blamed for his having to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953. Grilled by the committee about why he joined the World Peace Congress, Shaw coolly said that, as a veteran, he supported peace.
“Well, did you know it was a communist-front organization?” he was asked.
“Show me a Republican-front one. I’ll go there,” he replied.
Though he escaped danger, he felt his appearance before HUAC put a grim punctuation point on his musical career.
Feeling persecuted, Shaw left the country. He lived in Spain for a time but returned to the United States in the 1960s, eventually settling in California.