"His use of strings and arrangements blending commercialism with interesting musical values was almost unique of its kind. But Shaw was a contrary soul, critical of any pandering to audiences."
- "The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD," referring to Artie Shaw
For someone hoping to pitch swing-era big band music to today's counterculture, Artie Shaw might be the perfect choice.
The famous clarinetist died Dec. 29, 2003, at the age of 94 from natural causes possibly related to a long affliction with diabetes. His dance band and orchestras were among the most popular of the 1930s and '40s, and his music is featured on more than 100 million records. But he is equally noteworthy as a standout soloist and personal struggles that led to his total disillusionment with the music industry.
He hired Billie Holiday at a time when white bandleaders were refusing to feature black performers. His eight marriages included stars such as Lana Turner; all were unsuccessful. He alienated fans by calling them "morons."
"I could never understand why people wanted to dance to my music," he said. "I made it good enough to listen to."
Later he said he was referring only to the rowdy ones.
"I was about as utterly miserable as a fellow can possibly be and still stay on this side of suicide," he said.
Shaw is frequently compared to Benny Goodman, the other major clarinetist of the era (who died in 1986), but Shaw claimed his focus was playing music whereas his rival was just trying to swing. But the association was inevitable - during the Depression they often performed together in prominent New York City ensembles.
His band's 1938 recording of Cole Porter's "Begin The Beguine" won Shaw chart-topping fame at the age of 28, but he would become disdainful of playing it so frequently for audiences. Among his other major hits were "Stardust," "Nightmare" and "Moonglow." At least as noteworthy is the wide scope of his work, ranging from jazz/classical blends to bebop- and African-influenced performances.
He was born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City in 1910, bought his first saxophone at age 13 and left home three years later to play professionally. He switched to clarinet and became a prominent member of a CBS radio orchestra in his 20s before forming his first ensemble in 1936. He formed as disbanded several more until 1944, often frustrated by what he felt were less than ideal groups and performances. His disillusionment with industry demands for dance music over jazz resulted in his dropping out of the music scene - the most lasting of several "retirements" - in 1954.
Shaw turned to writing, including an autobiography and two works of fiction. He returned to conducting, but not playing, during the 1980s. During the early 1990s the five-CD "Self Portrait" boxed set, selected by Shaw, received Grammy nominations for the performances and his notes about them.
Web link: www.artieshaw.com .