Music Shows How We Want To Be: Artie Shaw's "Nightmare"
As I studied the life of Shaw for a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, I came to see that this desire to go ahead and also check himself, to be both abandoned and self-restricting troubled him very much. An innovative bandleader during the heyday of the swing era in 1930s and early '40s, Shaw, writes music historian George Simon, "was a searcher, a man looking for something new, something different." And he could be very kind, generous; becoming the first white bandleader to hire a black singer, Billie Holliday, and supporting her with a beautiful insistence despite the terrific bigotry and racism she had to face as she traveled with him and his band in the South. And Shaw also cared very much for knowledge, taking courses in French literature so he, as he said, "could read men like Flaubert, Proust and Baudelaire." But he was also snobbish, looking down on fellow musicians who he felt were not as intellectual as he was. And unfortunately he had contempt for his audiences, describing them as "musically illiterate." Had he studied Aesthetic Realism, he would have been able to learn from the very music he wrote and his life - which included pain about love - would have been so much more fortunate. In an important paper, Martha Baird, poet and critic of music, wrote of Shaw's "Nightmare," saying:
"Artie Shaw is intense. There is a kind of pain in the tone of his clarinet, but he has control too and he knows what he is doing. [And she also wrote] You feel Artie Shaw wept a lot."
Control and Crying Out in the Clarinet
When Shaw comes in a second time, on a longer solo, he is deep, thoughtful and yearning; you feel he is looking for something, and is not satisfied as he leans on blues notes that sound sour, painful and don't quite fit the background harmony. As the solo progresses he goes further, becomes more abandoned, goes higher and higher in the instrument's range - nearly three and a half octaves. Every phrase takes in more and more territory; and surprisingly that steady beat underneath, which earlier seemed so ominous, now seems to support him, encourage him on even as it remains so tight, just two semitones. What a contrast to the range of the clarinet!
So different from "Nightmare," dark, minor and portentous, is a song Artie Shaw is very much associated with: Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," which is mellow, beguiling and in the major. It was one of Shaw's biggest hits, and audiences would demand he play it again and again. These two compositions were recorded in 1938 and it thrilled me to see that the same opposites are central in both of them: the contained and the expansive, something tight, held back, and something that surges forward, together with a persistent, ongoing beat.
Isn't it something to think that the same man is identified so closely with these very different pieces - one upbeat, with a smooth, undulating melody; the other severe, dissonant, critical. It shows that Artie Shaw, like every person, was trying to put opposites together.
As "Nightmare" concludes - with that dark, inexorable pattern below, the brass blaring out above, and that final bright cymbal crash - we get an emotion that's very satisfying. This music is brash, it's bold, it's critical, it doesn't smooth things over. We can imagine audiences in the late 1930s, worried about what was happening in Europe, and trying to make sense of their own lives, pleased to hear it played by a big band, to hear something troubling given artistic form. And audiences today can feel this, too. In fact, "Nightmare" is part of the background score to the current film The Aviator.
As we listen to that last assertive minor chord with its crashing cymbal, we feel there's something honest going on. Reality is not summed up - we feel there's more to see.