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Artie Shaw died December 30th at the age of 94. It seems almost befitting that Shaw, the musician that despised fame, would pass on after all the magazines and newspapers went to press with their year-end tributes to the entertainers who died in 2004. "The public and I have nothing to do with each other," Shaw said in a 2002 interview. "I have succeeded in spite of the public." Well, the public may not have always accepted Shaw's music, but they certainly helped make him one of the great names of the Big Band era. The frustrated clarinetist and jazz musician, the last of the legendary big band leaders that rose to fame during the '30s and '40s, stopped playing 50 years ago because he was unable to achieve perfection.
A child of exceptional intelligence, Artie Shaw was born Arthur Arshawsky on May 23rd, 1910 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was seven when his family moved to New Haven, Conn.. A voracious reader with a tenacious personality, he struggled with wanting to be both a writer and a musician. He taught himself how to play the ukulele, piano and purchased a saxophone at age 13. "I took it up on my own," said Shaw when asked if he had any formal lessons. By 1925 he was playing around the country in different outfits. That same year he switched to the clarinet. He moved to Cleveland a year later and in 1927 took up residence with the city's most famous orchestra led by Austin Wylie. "I was leading the band during rehearsals and getting the right tempos," said Shaw. In fact, he was the arranger for the band besides being one of its musicians.
During the next three years Shaw would discover the records of his "principal influence", Louis Armstrong, and the avant-garde music of symphonic composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok. "Jazz is not something that can be taught, you have to listen to the right people," said Shaw. "The education you need is who to listen to until you get to a place where you can put your own bag of tricks together." It was on May 24th, 1936 that some of those "tricks" started to pay off. The place was New York's Imperial Theatre and for the first time a bona-fide swing concert took place. Featured were Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, Frank Trumbauer, Bob Crosby, Bunny Berigan, Red Norvo and a 26-year old Shaw who was to perform in front of the curtain with an octet while one of the larger bands were setting up. His group did not merely consist of jazz musicians, but also a string quartet. Shaw combined his two musical influences into a composition entitled "Interlude in B-Flat". "It changed the entire face of jazz," said Shaw. Indeed, it was the first time that jazz music was performed with strings. This Third Stream music, as it is now called, fell on enthusiastic ears and led to a recording contract with the Brunswick record label. However, the masses wanted music to dance to and this new sound did not sell.
In 1937 he regrouped with Artie Shaw & His New Music to perform "noisy riff music". This mainstream approach led to his recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine". "It was a good piece of music that wasn't being played," said Shaw. The recording brought him great fame and made him one of the highest paid bandleaders in the nation. Other hits followed such as: "Star Dust", "Back Bay Shuffle", and "Traffic Jam". In 1939, Hollywood came calling and before the year was over, Shaw at the height of his fame, abruptly quit. "I didn't want to get up there and perform," he said. He went to Mexico. He returned in 1940 to record another big band classic, "Frenesi", which he heard while south of the border. This recording featured a string section and his "Concerto for Clarinet" (recorded later that year) once again stretched the boundaries of jazz.
That same year he also put his large orchestra aside to create what would be the first of three incarnations of the Gramercy 5. The original sextet consisted of Shaw (clarinet), Billy Butterfield (trumpet), Al Hendrickson (guitar), Jud DeNaut (bass), Nick Fatool (drums) and Johnny Guarnieri on - of all things - the harpsichord. This novel idea not only produced some original jazz sounds, but also the hit singles "Summit Ridge Drive" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". "Artie was very picky," recalls Hendrickson. "We did something like 19 takes on 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'. I was really getting bugged." Pianist Hank Jones, who was a member of the third group, confirms Shaw's perfectionist ways. "We would do something like 15, 17 takes. He wanted to have it exactly right."