A Tribute to Artie Shaw: The King of Clarinet

Artie Shaw Tribute.001

Early life

Artie Shaw King Of The Clarinet

(Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on May 23, 1910 – Dec. 30, 2004) Artie Shaw was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to parents of Jewish-Russian descent. At the age of twelve he began playing the C melody saxophone, and it wasn’t long before he began winning amateur night contests, saving the prize money to buy an alto sax. He received a rude shock upon discovering that it was pitched a minor third lower than the piano. He thought, “What’s going on? I’ve got to learn everything all over again? And in a different key? What is this?! Well, at that point it was either give up music or learn something about it.”

He did become proficient on the instrument, and began gigging (at age 15) with a New Haven dance band led by Johnny Cavallaro. It was during this stint that Shaw began playing clarinet, which was to become his main horn.

In 1926, Shaw moved to Cleveland and worked for four years as the music director for an orchestra led by a violinist, Austin Wylie. This provided extensive and valuable writing and arranging experience for the still-teenaged Shaw. After that job, he toured with Irving Aaronson (playing tenor sax) and went to New York with him. There, he jammed with and came under the influence of the great stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith. Shaw later performed arrangements of some of Smith’s tunes.

Shaw remained in New York, eventually becoming the first call alto player in the recording studios.  Over the next few years he played on countless record dates, often sitting next to such other then-session musicians as Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Bunny Berigan, Jack Teagarden, and Claude Thornhill.

Leader of bands

In 1936, Shaw formed his first group, an unusual ensemble consisting of clarinet, rhythm section, and string quartet. It performed his composition “Interlude in B-flat” at the Imperial Theatre, catching the ear of Tommy Rockwell, head of the Rockwell-O’Keefe booking agency. Rockwell convinced Shaw to add two trumpets, trombone, tenor sax, and a singer, and the new augmented group debuted at the Lexington hotel. Its distinctive sound and approach did not catch on with a public hungry for the orthodox swing of bands like those of Dorsey, Goodman, and Charlie Barnet, so the group disbanded in early 1937, after which Shaw decided to form a swing group of his own.

Resolving to beat the big band/swing world at their own game, Artie decided to create a band that was harder-swinging and much. At the time, he was leading a standard five-reed (counting his clarinet), five-brass, and four-rhythm group. Though they played solid musically and, of course, featured Arie’s distinguishing clarinet, the orchestra found itself struggling against serious competition. Though Shaw was being hailed as the“King of the Clarinet,” Benny Goodman held the title “The King Of Swing,”and dominated.

Conventional swing bands were made of trumpet, clarinet, trombone,saxophone, and the rhythm section. Arite’s swing band went a completely new way – three rhythm instruments, string quartet, and clarinet. In swing music thus far, using string instruments was basically unheard of. This addition  generated a ton of excitement at the band’s first New York performance. Later on, saxophone and brass, along with a singer were added to the group. The new band featured music and arrangements by violinist Jerry Gray, trombonist Harry Rodgers, and Shaw. It began a residency at the Roseland-State Ballroom, from which it broadcast regularly. The unique sound generated by this collection led Arti and his big band to receive a recording contract and regular gig at the Lexington Hotel. Sadly the novelty which was the key to success also died quickly and the ensemble broke up. 

Shaw’s next group was a more conventional swing band. They performed well-known pop and swing tunes. As Artie’s career took off, he leveraged his new position to advance the movement toward racial integration. He hired singer and African-American star, Billie Holiday. In 1938, Holiday and Shaw collaborated on the remake of “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter.  It was recorded on the band’s first session for Bluebird, becoming the first big hit for Shaw. Others followed: “Indian Love Call,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Non-Stop Flight,” “Yesterdays,” and the band’s theme song, “Nightmare.”

Billie Holiday soon left Artie’s group due to incessant racial hostility she experienced from club employees and owners while they were on tour in the south. Shaw said of Holiday,”Nobody would let me record her. People were up tight about that stuff then. The vice presidents didn’t want the band to play too much jazz, either. Dance music was what was selling.”Shaw, throughout his career would continue to champion racial integration when he hired musician. The skin color never mattered to him, only their musical skills. 

Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were the white big bandleaders who dominated the years of big band and swing, along with the great Buddy DeFranco, were some of history’s most refined jazz clarinet players. DeFranco described Artie as, “a much more progressive player than Benny Goodman. He was a more interesting player and would create things harmonically that Goodman never dreamt of.”

The Music of Artie Shaw

The band was catapulted to fame by strong record sales and radio exposure, but Shaw had trouble adjusting. He was not at all interested in the business aspects of his work, being primarily concerned with the music. Aside from his annoyance at the music business, Shaw was also ticked off by the invasions of his privacy (his two failed marriages to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner attracted much interest). The critic John McDonough wrote, “his status as a swing idol had nothing to do with the music he was playing and his aspirations as an artist. In fact, it was inimical to both.” The music, however, was always of high quality, especially with the addition (in fall 1938) of Buddy Rich, who lit a fire under the group.

The pressures of fame weakened Shaw, however, and while in Hollywood working on the band’s first film (Dancing Co-Ed), he collapsed ill. Upon his recovery, he attempted to quit, but was persuaded by the band to stay on slightly longer. Shaw had finally had enough by November of 1938, though, and he broke the band up. It should be noted that Shaw himself wasn’t easy to get along with, by his own admission. He saw himself as an intellectual, and had a tendency to look down on musicians and fans who lacked interests outside music. This naturally created additional pressures within all the groups he had.

Artie Shaw Gramercy Five

In 1939, after a long rest, Shaw recorded again with a studio orchestra with strings, producing another hit, “Frenesi.” Its success prompted another touring band, this time with strings, out of which Shaw formed a combo he called the Gramercy Five. The first edition of this small group included Billy Butterfield on trumpet and Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord. It recorded several important sides, such as “Special Delivery Stomp” and “Summit Ridge Drive.” The full band also recorded a classic version of “Stardust” in 1940 that featured excellent solos by Shaw and trombonist Jack Jenney.

In early 1941, however, Shaw disbanded, again for personal reasons. He stayed in New York to study orchestration and record (one session included Benny Carter, Red Allen, and J.C. Higginbotham).

Later that year, Shaw formed yet another great group, including trombonist Jack Jenney, trombonist/arranger Ray Conniff, pianist Guarnieri, drummer Dave Tough, saxophonists George Auld and Les Robinson, and trumpeters Lee Castle and Max Kaminsky. Hot Lips Page was also featured with this group on trumpet and vocals, providing an extra kick. Although obviously an excellent group, it only lasted a few months before Shaw again disbanded because of ill health in early 1942.

War and After

Artie Shaw And The Rangers

TIME magazine reported at the advent of America’s involvement in World War II, that for the German people the USA was defined by “sky-scrapers, Clark Gable, and Artie Shaw.” Such was the global impact Artie Shaw was having.

During World War II, two months after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Shaw enlisted in the Navy. He then began recruiting other musicians to form a band that would perform for allied troops. This part of Shaw’s story is told in the wonderful PBS series documentary, “Jazz,” produced by Ken Burns. 

Artie Shaw’s Navy band toured the South Pacific, playing in extreme harsh and at times dangerous conditions. The jungles were so humid and hot that the key pads on the clarinets and saxophones rotted and even the horns were held together by rubber bands. The band was strafed or bombed by Japanese airplanes 17 times.

The U.S. Navy Rangers was the fifth orchestra led by Artie Shaw. This group featured Conrad Gozzo, Frank Beach, Johnny Best, and Max Kaminsky on trumpets, Claude Thornhill on piano, Dave Tough on drums, and Sam Donahue on sax, among others. Shaw chose a variety of charts from his earlier bands, and the troops, he later recalled, were familiar with most of the material. Sadly they did not record and, other than one time on a radio show (playing the hit, “Begin The Beguine”), nothing else was documented. As the orchestra toured around the Pacific war theatre, its shows assisted in raising the troop morale.

The strain and difficult conditions were a constant strain on Artie and he became seriously Sick in Dec. 1943. This led in Artie being given a medical discharge (the band continued under Donahue’s direction).

Upon his return to the U.S., Shaw rested until fall of 1944, when he formed one of his best bands yet. It included Roy Eldridge on trumpet (“Little Jazz,” featuring Eldridge, was an important recording by this band), Dodo Marmarosa on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, and Ray Conniff on trombone (he also arranged). Once again, Shaw drew from this band a Gramercy Five combo. Although, like all of his previous groups, it received great critical acclaim, this band turned out to be Shaw’s final great big band.

He sporadically tried keeping up a large ensemble, but the focus of his musical work until his retirement from music in 1954 was recording with small groups. He started working with modern players in 1949, and his last Gramercy Five sessions in 1954 included Hank Jones and Tal Farlow. These recordings demonstrate that Shaw had arrived at a peak of creative power, his language having evolved to represent an eloquent mix of swing and bebop elements.

Artie Shaw Quits Music

Following these incredible sessions, at the height of his artistic achievements in 1955, he put down the clarinet and quit music as an occupation. In the end, though, the artistic rewards of the music could not compete with Shaw’s distaste for the trappings that inevitably went along with commercial success. He said in 1985, “People ask me, “Do you miss it?” That’s like asking a man who had to cut off his right arm because it was gangrenous if he misses it – obviously he does. But he didn’t want to die. So I simply had to get out of the music business. And, of course, when a guy gives up several million dollars he has to have compelling reasons. My compelling reason was I wanted to live, not die. It’s that simple. I suppose that sounds awfully pat but it’s true. I am convinced that if I had stayed in it, I’d be dead by now.”

Artie Shaw Movies

His Hollywood, classic, “ruggedly handsome” level opened the door for film career for Shaw. In Lana Turner’s (she became Shaw’s wife in ‘40) autobiography, “Lana: the lady, the legend, the truth” published in 1982, she wrote, “He never missed a chance to complain that it was beneath him to appear in a Hollywood movie. The crew plotted to drop an arc light on his head.”

Shaw’s films included:

Dancing Co-ed (1939)

Artie Shaw and his Orchestra (1939)

Artie Shaw’s Class in Swing (1939)

Symphony of Swing (1939)

Second Chorus (1940)

Time is All You’ve Got (documentary 1985)

The Many Artie Shaw Wives

Click here for the juicy details

Shaw was married eight times. This is made it seem like a never ending Artie Shaw spouse carousel to observers. This inability to keep healthy relationships makes sense since (see what I did there?) he was a self-proclaimed “very difficult man.” Between marriages and liaisons, Artie Shaw kept the gossip columnists busy.  

He was handsome, almost 6 feet tall with brown eyes and dark hair, and had celebrity status. Shaw also apparently had enough charm going for him that a pile of glamorous women all thought he was partner material. However, his abrasive personality and perfectionist tendencies ensured the marriages would not last long. Several of his wives described Artie as being exceedingly emotionally abusive.

His first two marriages were annulled and the others all ended in divorce. His first two wives were pre fame and not from the show business world. He had two boys, Steven Kern (with Betty Kern) and Jonathan Shaw (with Doris Dowling).

  1. Jane Cairns (1932–33)
  2. Margaret Allen (1934–37)
  3. Lana Turner (1940)
  4. Betty Kern (1942–43)
  5. Ava Gardner (1945–46)
  6. Kathleen Winsor (1946–48)
  7. Doris Dowling (1952–56)
  8. Evelyn Keyes (1957–85)

The Artie Shaw Orchestra

Artie Shaw surprised the music world In December l983, when he made a short-lived bandstand return. After being away from music for thirty years, he launched, the still touring, Artie Shaw Orchestra.  This new Artie Shaw Orchestra continues, even after Shaw’s passing to be one of the “swingingest” bands around today. The group continues to follow in the Artie Shaw legacy,  featuring clarinetist Matt Koza. They follow the formula tested by time to please their audiences with swing and jazz.

What Clarinet Did Artie Shaw Use?

For most of Shaw’s career, he played a large-bore Selmer BT six-ring model with articulated G-sharp key with the big band (as it has more ‘shout’). He briefly played a Conn before switching to a Buffet with the Gramercy 5 in 1953 (as it’s more ‘intimate’).

When Artie Shaw was 93, he retired two of his beloved clarinets by giving them to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. A 1938 Buffet-Crampon & Cie Bb clarinet, serial number 22457. He also gave a 1945 Selmer B-flat clarinet, serial number M6727.

“Artie always used a 6-ring “symphony” model with the articulated G#; you can see that in the keys in many photos, whether a Selmer or a Buffet. He showed me one he’d used: he adjusted the horn itself, slightly, removing the tiny little key & pad in the upper joint on those models, & plugging that hole, because it “got in the way”! As for his mouthpieces, I did describe in there somewhere, how he’d use “stock” mouthpieces, never even “carving” them. Of course, he also endorsed a Brilhardt model mouthpiece in magazine ads as an “Artie Shaw model mouthpiece” so maybe those were the “stock” brand he used after those were created? Also as mentioned he never “carved” reeds, & in the ’40s used a plastic “Enduro” reed. He said the sound you get comes from inside your head, not from your equipment! I think he meant that both in a conceptual sense, and in the sense that the acoustics in your skull & embouchure affect your sound as well. Thinking about it, that seems obvious, but perhaps few realize it…” Vladimir Simosko, author of Artie Shaw – A Musical Biography and Discography

How Did Artie Shaw Die

The Artie Shaw story really does not have a happy ending. He did not have family around him to comfort him or mourn his passing. He was financially fine, but seems as though he was very alone. His son had this to say:

Artie Shaw died, at the age of 94, after years of declining health.

Awards and Honors

  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement awarded, 2004; 
  • Posthumous National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, 2005

the Legacy of Artie Shaw

The material that Artie Shaw produced was some of the most musically significant of the Swing era, for several reasons. Shaw himself was an awesome musician, both creatively and technically. Though not a “clarinetist’s clarinetist” like Benny Goodman, Shaw’s playing was on a consistently higher level linearly and harmonically. A telling statement came from the trumpeter Benny Harris: “We listened to Artie Shaw instead of Benny Goodman. Goodman swung, but Shaw was more modern.” Shaw’s technique was impeccable, as well, and he could execute his ideas throughout the horn’s range with a tone that retained its thickness even in the highest register. Of all the big band leaders, Shaw may have been the most musically gifted.

In terms of musicality, Shaw’s bands were a reflection of himself. As can be seen by the names listed earlier, good players were always featured. All of his groups and the arrangements they played (many by Shaw) were tasteful and highly musical, even when strings were added. Shaw has said he could only in good conscience produce and release material of artistic value.


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