Artie Shaw: Shaw on Shaw

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Artie Shaw
By Ira Sabin
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Artie Shaw
By Ira Sabin
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Artie Shaw
By Ira Sabin

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Artie Shaw may be retired from performing music—he gave up the clarinet in 1955—but the 91-year-old is not the retiring type.

JazzTimes invited Shaw to speak about his storied career in music at the 2002 International Association of Jazz Education’s annual conference in honor of the marvelous recent box set Self-Portrait (Bluebird).

We asked Shaw’s old friend Peter Levinson, acclaimed author of the new September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle and the recent Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, to introduce Artie and moderate the discussion. Shaw, however, is truly a man who needs neither introduction nor moderation. In a Long Beach, Calif., hotel ballroom not unlike the many in which he used to perform, the irrepressible Shaw regaled the capacity crowd for an hour and a half with his anecdotes, advice and admonishments. Levinson, like all of us, sat back and enjoyed the “lecture,” as Shaw called it, in which he shed light on his remarkable life as both a serious musician and enormously popular celebrity—for his music, good looks and rocky marriages to starlets like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, who were but two of his six wives. As he described one period in his life, “I was going around the country doing my impression of Elvis before Elvis showed up.”

We’ve excerpted his remarks here. It’s not an easy task to edit Artie Shaw, but reprinting his monologue uncut would have taken up about half the magazine. Still, the end result is 100% unfiltered Artie Shaw. For more on his life and times, check out his own notes for Self-Portrait. After all, no one can talk about Artie Shaw better than the man himself.

—Lee Mergner

On Louis Armstrong…

Louis started it. He was the first guy who played what you could call present-day kind of jazz. He took a tune and did things with it. And the first time I ever heard him—I was a kid—I think I was 15 or 16, and I heard about him and I heard his records. ’Cause I was a white kid, my first idols were Bix [Beiderbecke] and [Frankie] Trumbauer. Those were the guys I listened to. And they were remarkable, but they did the same thing.

Louis was the first guy that I heard that gave me a whole new approach to what this thing called jazz is. I was 16 and I got in the car and drove from Cleveland, where I was working, up to Chicago, and sat on a bandstand. It had a rug on it. And I was waiting for the band to come on. He had the so-called Hot Five. And he got up there, and the first thing I ever heard him play in my life was that cadenza for “West End Blues,” that opening cadenza. I can sing it for you, but I haven’t got the range. Anyway, it made such an impression on me that I thought, “This is God.” This wasn’t a man. Louis became God for me. I followed him around and listened to what he did, and that’s all. I didn’t try to play like him. First of all, I was playing a clarinet; he played trumpet. But I tried to do the interpretations of what he did in a manner that he did. So he was number one.

On Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins…

[Count] Basie had Lester Young, an outstanding man. The first time I heard him, I thought, “This is it.” I asked Bill one time, Bill Basie, “Why don’t you let him play more?” He said, “Man, when he plays, he takes away the band.” Lester introduced a whole new approach. Lester and Coleman Hawkins were the two inventors of what we now know as the tenor sax, a very supple and interesting instrument. You can do very good things with it. Ben Webster and a lot of people have played great tenor. But the two guys who started it all were Coleman Hawkins and then later Lester. Lester came along and he was the precise opposite of Coleman. Coleman had this big robust sound, and Lester had this thin piping sort of—he had his own sound. It didn’t sound like a tenor as we knew the tenor.

On Rising to Converge…

I found myself in a very strange position one day. I was picked up by several “consensus” critics who picked the guys who made the business. And they talked about Louis Armstrong. They talked about Bix Beiderbecke and me—in the same thing. And I thought, “That’s a strange combination. How did I get into that?” Well, Flannery O’Connor was a great writer and she wrote some marvelous stuff. And one of her statements was, “Everything that rises must converge.” It’s an interesting statement. Everything that rises comes together. So I guess if you rise high enough, you’re going to run into other people who’ve risen high. So that’s what happened to me. I found myself connected with people I didn’t know. I have not been influenced by them. I’ve been able to hear them. I listen to everybody I can. And some guys I listen to for a minute and a half and I say, “That’s enough.” And others, five seconds: “I don’t want to hear any more.”

On Getting a Sound…

Any well-worthwhile-talking-about musician can play anything he hears. So it isn’t a question of what notes he plays or how many of them he puts into a bar. It’s a question of the sound he gets out of his horn. That’s very important. That’s maybe the most important thing. The first thing you hear is the sound of that horn. So if you don’t want to sound like a clone, you’ve got to develop your own particular sound. Your chops are different from anybody who lives. So if you’re going to play a wind instrument, I can’t tell you how to play it. I can only go, “No, no, no. That’s not it.”

On Cloning…

One of the things a jazz bandleader does is take the notes that the arranger gives you and interprets them in a way that fits the particular manner of the way his band plays. You don’t do what other people do, ’cause if you did you’d be a clone. And there are too many of those around. Ever since Charlie Parker came up, most alto players started to sound like Charlie Parker. Well, Charlie was a very good model, but that doesn’t mean you should imitate him. It meant you can be influenced by him and go your own way, and a lot of people have. But a lot of them didn’t, and that’s true of today’s players.

On Klezmer Music…

That’s a cornball phrase. It’s a cornball thing to do. I did it once at the end of a piece called “Dr. Livingston, I Presume.” It had an African sound [originally]. At a certain point, I decided I would play it as a sort of Jewish piece; a hora it’s called. It’s a Yiddish piece of music, and I went “rah rah rah-rah-rah-rah-rah dit-da-dit-da-dit-da.” And the drummer went with me. And now this critic writes about this. He said, “Shaw wrote a piece of music in which he depicts himself as Stanley meeting Dr. Livingston. And when they meet, they go into a happy dance.” That was no more my intention than it was to fly in here. It was just madness. But anyway, that’s what happens. You do what you have to do, and the recipient, the perceiver, hears and thinks what he wants out of it. You can’t control that.

On “Begin the Beguine”…

Well, I’ve heard that to a point where I can’t stand it anymore. I don’t even—if I can get through an evening without playing it, it’s a big feather in my cap. I did it twice in my life. Then I made the mistake at the end of the evening in saying [to the audience], “Imagine, we got through without playing ‘Begin the Beguine.’” The next thing I know, “‘Begin the Beguine,’ ‘Begin…’”—so we ended up playing it anyway.

On the Word Jazz…

Jazz is not a word I care about. Jazz was once a valid word when people like Bessie Smith and Bunk Johnson and so on were jazzing things up. But since then it’s become a highly stylized and complex art form. It’s very complicated. You have to hear a piece of music and know the melody, know the chord structure and know the tempo it should be played. And then you begin to get some dim approximation of what the performer is doing up there. He is ad libbing a whole new composition based on the general chord structure and the contours of the song.

I prefer to call it American informal music. You can abbreviate to AIM if you want. It means more. It’s American music, and it’s informal. Most European music is very formal. It’s structured, and you have to play it pretty much as the composer intended. If you don’t do it, you violate what the composer had in mind. And it’s not a good idea to violate what Beethoven or Mozart or Bach were doing, because they knew what they were doing, and they did all the violating they could stand. When you hear “jazz” coming from me, it’s, quote, “jazz.” I’m not going to keep saying that.

On Jazz and Kenny G…

Jazz is music first, foremost and last. It’s American music. And it’s informal. So why do we have to call it jazz, as if that has any meaning? Like Kenny G is called jazz. You’re laughing, but if Kenny G were doing this lecture, you couldn’t get in this room. He has an enormous audience. And I don’t know what it is. It’s basically elevator music. He plays the same thing over and over again. You might as well be a captive audience. I’m not knocking the guy. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing. But that has nothing to do with me. The audience buys it. The audience buys it in huge quantities. H.L. Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” It’s probably true. I have a better one: No matter how carefully and assiduously and how deeply you bury shit, the American public will find it and buy it in large quantity. It’s true, absolutely true.

On Training the Audience...

The audiences today are trained to stand up and applaud at the end of a chorus. I don’t care who plays it. How bad the chorus is doesn’t matter. They stand up and applaud, ’cause this guy just sat down. The best thing you can do as ambassadors is—the next time somebody stands up at the end of a rotten solo, say, “Sit your ass down and shut up and let them play.” If you could do that enough, you could put an end to that. We do that with classical music. We go into a symphony hall and first movement, second movement, third movement, fourth movement; then applaud. Meanwhile, listen to the music. Why don’t we do that with jazz, the so-called “jazz”? Listen to it, and if it’s good, applaud it.

I used to say to audiences. “Look, I’ll introduce the soloists at the end of the piece, in order, and you’ll be able to clap for them. Please stay seated and listen.” I said to Woody Herman one time, “Why don’t you do that? Why do you say, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, Sam Yipniff’?” I don’t want to hear about Sam Yipniff. Let me hear the music. Woody said, “The audience likes it.” I said, “Never mind the audience. What do you like?” Well, that was a new thought. Woody was a showman. He grew up in a vaudeville-oriented family and he, not to knock him—Woody was very good, knew what he was doing—he knew he wasn’t a very good clarinet player. But Woody was an excellent bandleader. So everybody does what he’s got to do.

On Jazz Education…

I don’t think anybody can be taught to play jazz. You can’t teach that. It’s not something you can do. You can’t teach somebody to ride a bicycle. He’s got to get on the bicycle and ride it until he finds out what he has to do. With playing a clarinet or playing a piano or playing any instrument, if you want to play this so-called idiom that we’re calling jazz for shorthand, you cannot teach him. What you can do is encourage him when he’s doing the right thing, discourage him when he’s doing the wrong thing, steer him toward the people he should listen to.

Whenever I would audition people or I’d listen to a vocalist and they’d want to come in the band, I would say before she sang a note, “Who do you listen to?” And if she said, “Dolly Dawn,” I’d say, “Go away.” If she said, “Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella,” I’d say, “Fine. Let’s hear you.” That doesn’t mean she was good, but she had the right models and she had a chance. And sometimes if she was good, I’d hire her.

On Benny Goodman…

I remember I had lunch with Benny Goodman one day, and we were talking about some business having to do with booking bands and whatnot and where we were going to go. And at a certain point he kept asking me about different clarinet players. “What do you think of So-and-So? What do you think of So-and-So?” Finally, I said, “Benny, you’re too hung up on the clarinet.” He looked at me and said, “What do you mean? That’s what we play.” I said, “No, Benny. I’m trying to play music.” That was a brand new idea. The clarinet is an instrument. It’s not the end; it’s the means. Well, for about a minute and a half, I saw a gleam in his eye. I thought he knew, that he got the point. He didn’t. He went right back to the clarinet. He was a hell of a clarinet player. He did that better than anybody. But musically he lacked, and nobody’s listening to him very much anymore.

On “Nocturne”…

“Nocturne” is a piece of music written by an American named Thomas Griselle. It won a prize for the best piece of written American music in the jazz idiom in its day. This was back in around 1934. I would have done much more [like “Nocturne”], but the powers that be at RCA didn’t want it; they wanted more upbeat things. So we couldn’t do that. A lot of things I couldn’t do. I was allowed to choose anything I wanted to do, but I couldn’t ride in the face of total disapproval. It was a bad idea.

Now, that piece, I used to play that in theaters. In those days when you played theaters, you played flag wavers. You played pieces where at the end of the piece the audience would applaud—you know, loud, fast, things like “Traffic Jam.” That always got a big hand. We’d play [“Nocturne”] and at the end of it there would be a dead silence. Then the audience would applaud. It was like being in a concert hall. That was interesting to me. I could do what I thought was good and still please an audience, a large, mass audience. It was happening. But I was an eccentric, you know. Nobody wanted to take me too seriously.

Music isn’t supposed to be pleasing. No work of art is supposed to be pleasing. It’s supposed to be an expression of the artist to enlarge the medium in which he works. If Picasso came along with the classic period, which he had done, and stayed with that, chances are we’d never have heard of him. But he kept doing other things over and over and over. The word is “protean.” He kept changing shapes and in doing that he enlarged the medium, the idea of what could be done with paint on pigment—pigment on canvas, which is what paint is about.

On Billie Holiday…

Billie had—the only thing I can call it is a native musical intelligence. That’s hard to explain. Billie was not an educated woman. She had never studied anything, including playing or singing, but she had a native musical intelligence. When she sang a song, she made it hers. She didn’t stay with the melody. She took it and used that as her expression, in which she kind of got into the spirit of what those lyrics were. “Strange Fruit,” of course, was an exception. That was a big landmark for her.

But when I hired Billie, she had just got finished with Basie. And I was playing up in Boston. And I had gone through maybe a minimum of 12 singers, around a dozen, maybe more. I couldn’t find anybody who could keep up with that band, who could sing in such a way that you didn’t squirm waiting for the band to come back. So somebody said, “You know, Billie’s out of work.” I think it was Maxie Kaminsky, who knew her. He said, “I know she doesn’t want to go back with Basie again.” I said, “Really?” “Yeah, she’s living down there, you know, with her mom.”

So I got in my car with Maxie and a couple other people, and we drove down to New York City after the gig. We played till one o’clock in Boston, got to New York about five or six, woke her up. We went to her apartment, told her mother and Billie woke up bleary-eyed. I said, “Come on. You’re going to join my band.” Now, I had known her since she was 17. I had heard her singing when I was working with Willie Smith, the Lion. He had a pretty bad opinion of her. He said she was always drinking and carrying on. But that kid could sing. She could sing the blues marvelously. So I said, “You’re going to be working with my band. Remember I told you to do that one day.” She says, “Yeah, that will be the day.” I said, “I’m serious. Do you want to join me?” She said, “You mean it? I’ll try it.” So she joined the band, came on.

I wrote a tune for her in Schenectady. We had a night off. And I wrote a tune called “Any Old Time,” which had a lyric and music and an arrangement. So we rehearsed the tune and she played it. We made a record of it. We found out then that we couldn’t release the record. They had to pull it off the charts, because Billie had signed a contract with Brunswick Records, and she couldn’t record for Victor. Later that got adjusted. Meanwhile, I had made the record over again with Helen Forrest. They had more or less the same range. Later Billie’s record came out. It’s in [Self-Portrait].

She’s as good as anybody I’ve ever heard. If you listen to her record of “Autumn in New York”—first of all, I’m astonished she learned it. Billie couldn’t read a note of music, and “Autumn in New York” was written by Vernon Duke, and it’s a pretty complicated song. She sang the hell out of it.

She couldn’t stay with the band because it was too tough for black people in those days. We went down across the Mason-Dixon Line one time, playing in the south. And as we started to go into the Deep South, Billie turned to me and said, “Do you think I should do this?” I said, “Yeah, I think you should do it.” “I think it’s important that you break that line.” So she said, “Well”—she trusted me. She knew I was not trying to exploit her. So she went down there and she sang.

The second night down there—the people loved her—she sang and she was a big hit. The second night, she finished singing a song—we had an arrangement, I think, of “Travelin’,” an old spiritual song. When she finished, some redneck in front of the band hollered, “Have the nigger wench sing another song.” The “nigger wench”? Well, that was his way of talking about a colored woman. In those days we didn’t say black—colored. Billie was a short-tempered lady; she had a short fuse. And her face got pretty red under the tan. She was mouthing at him, “You...”—you know what she was saying. And then pretty soon some angry noses came up. People gathered in knots on the floor. They didn’t want her to do that. So I had it all set: I had the cops out in the wings, and they grabbed her and put her in the bus and drove her away. That was the end of that night.

But the rest of the tour was pretty good. Then she went to St. Louis with us, and there the audience loved her. We played a big hotel in St. Louis. I forget what it was. And Billie was tremendous. The people loved her. And, you know, she was a good singer.

The movie that later was made [Lady Sings the Blues] was so distorted. They wanted to make a movie saying, “Hate Whitey.” They made a movie in which they made Billie the reason the band worked. And I was the guy that was supposed to benefit from that. It was a terrible movie. But it made a lot of money. I said earlier what the American people will do no matter how deeply you bury something.

On the Gramercy 5 and Roy Eldridge…

The Gramercy 5 was an offshoot of my band. I started it when I was up in San Francisco and had a big, big band. I had a brass and reeds and rhythm section. And I added a big string section, big for those days. And at a certain point I decided that we wanted to play some free jazz, you know. In the big band you wouldn’t allow it. Your music is pretty much charted. You can’t play a lot of jazz in the middle of a huge arrangement.

So I picked five guys, had another group called the Chelsea 3, another one called the Circle 5, the Butterfield 8, the Gramercy 5 was one. That one recorded a tune called “Summit Ridge Drive,” which was our first recording with that. And it became such a big hit. And at a certain point, I wanted to free the Gramercy 5 from the harpsichord, which I had been using. It was a different instrument, different sound. And I decided to go back to a straight piano, bass, guitar and two wind instruments, and they were Roy Eldridge and myself. The reason I hired Roy, I was a great admirer of his playing.

Roy had the same problem, though, with the audiences that Billie Holiday had. He couldn’t take the guff that went with being black. He’d play solos in the night and people would ask for his autographs, and he was a big man. Then we’d get off the stand; he couldn’t buy a hamburger. He couldn’t go in and eat with the band. You had to be there to know what I’m talking about.

The bus would stop at night in front of some broken-down old diner, and we’d all go in and grab a bite to eat on the way to the next gig. Roy couldn’t go in. If he went in, the band wasn’t allowed to eat. So we would all go on strike and not go in. And mostly the guys would let us go. But once in a while a guy would say, “All right. I’ll let you have a hamburger. You can take it out to him.”

So that was Roy. He didn’t like that, and I don’t blame him. At a certain point, he got to the point where he was getting drunk, and he didn’t like what was happening. And he got pretty salty with me one night. Pulled a knife on me. Blamed me. I became Whitey the Villain. And I said, “Roy, what are you trying to do?” He said, “Man, any reason why I shouldn’t cut you?” I said, “Well, if I’m your enemy, who are your friends?” He didn’t quite know where to go with that. All of a sudden he started crying. So I put my arm around him.

I had given him notice that night. I said, “You’ve got to get out of here. This is no place for you. You’re going to get killed. You’re going to kill somebody or you’re going…”—he carried a gun. I said, “You can’t do this.” So finally he went to Europe—I advised him to go to Europe. I said, “You can make a life there.” Well, I saw him many years later. And he said, “Yeah, I loved it. It was great. But I’m an American. I’m a corrupted American. I have to live here.”

So he stayed here till the day he died. He lost his chops. The last time I saw him he was a little white-haired man. I was playing some gig in New York City, and he showed up. And he was singing for a living, trying to make a living. Poor guy. He should have been—should have made a fortune, but he never got a chance to market what he did. He had his own band. He couldn’t handle it.

On Leading a Band…

It’s like Bunny Berigan. Bunny couldn’t handle a band. Bunny had no self-discipline. He was a great trumpet player, but when he got in front of a band, he would get worried and then he’d start drinking. And then pretty soon the men in the band lost all respect for him. And it doesn’t work. You have to present a kind of model for the men. When you’re standing in front of a band, you have to be “the leader,” meaning you’ve got to set the tone.

Guys would be talking while, say, Billy would be playing a solo. After the gig, I would call the guys aside and I’d say, “Look. If you’re talking while he’s playing, what do you think the audience is going to think? They see you talking. That means you don’t think much of what he’s doing. You’ve got to pay attention to what he’s doing. He’s doing something real good.” “Yeah, but we’ve heard it.” I said, “But the audience doesn’t know that. You have to act as though you’re listening to it for the first time.”

That was a new thought. Men in the music business don’t think that way. But you’re playing for an audience. And that audience is not too aware of what you’re supposed to be doing. So you have to, say, set up a model. You can’t drink. You can’t carry on. You’ve got to do what you want the men in the band to do. Set an example is the phrase.

Originally published in May 2002

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