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Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography by Vladimir Simosko

Sixty years ago, Artie Shaw’s name carried even more cachet in the world of popular entertainment than do the names of top film stars and rock performers today. Tellingly, though, he was neither an actor nor a singer, but a brilliant clarinetist and the leader of one of the top swing bands in the world, a superstar whose handsome face and glamorous persona made him the idol of millions. But Shaw openly despised the furor that his live performances generated and occasionally, to dramatic effect, defected from show biz, much to the chagrin of his many admirers. This was his life’s most distasteful period, for underneath the glamorous facade his fans had created was a serious, sensitive, creative artist who just wanted to make good music.

Among Shaw’s eight beautiful wives, four were popular Hollywood actresses, the most well-known being Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, and the celebrity novelist Kathleen Winsor. But, typically, the stories of his romances garnered far more press than any mention of his artistic goals or literary interests, which even then were widening the gulf between him and his associates. Even at the height of his fame, he repeatedly broke up his bands and ran away from the “business,” hoping to flee the whirlwind of popularity and artistic frustrations that surrounded him. The escape he sought was found in solitary retreat, where he could immerse himself in an eclectic assortment of studies rarely even considered by other jazzmen, much less his mindless public.

Specifically, what made Shaw so different from the “powers-that-be” was his vision of doing something more important in music than merely playing pop tunes for the dancing public. Even beyond his stature as one of a handful of truly great clarinetists, Shaw was also a prolific composer and arranger, whose bands always bore the stamp of his personal touch. However, in mid-1954, at a peak in his artistic growth, and while leading a bop-tinged modern jazz combo, he not only disbanded once again, but this time, having finally reached the end of his tether, quit playing altogether. Today, at age 90, Shaw has not touched a clarinet in 46 years.

Longtime Shaw researcher Vladimir Simosko has undertaken a formidable job in preparing this book. He not only interviewed his subject at length on matters both biographical and musical, but he also consulted hundreds of written sources relevant to Shaw’s career. After an opening chapter placing Shaw’s life and times into historical perspective, Simosko covers in absorbing detail the minutiae of his subject’s career, from his years as a lead alto player and clarinetist in dance bands and studio orchestras to the 1936-1954 period of his greatest renown. Especially interesting are the accounts of his WWII Navy band and his latter day immersion in the world of classical clarinet study and orchestration, subject areas rarely mentioned in the jazz press.

The discographical section and the valuable indexes that follow bring to light much that has been ignored by other jazz scholars. Shaw’s prolific work as a sideman between 1928 and 1936 is presented as fully as possible, considering the paucity of original documents attending that period and the rarity of many of the source recordings. Conversely, though, while Simosko’s coverage of the 1936-1954 big bands and combos includes all known information regarding airchecks, transcriptions, and film appearances, he has omitted from the listings of the commercial labels, i.e., Brunswick/Vocalion, Bluebird/Victor, Musicraft, Decca, etc., any reference to isolated, redundant, or unauthorized reissues. This includes data for anthologized titles, “Best of” compilations, bootleg and budget-store LPs and CDs, and non-U.S. releases. Some bootleg series, though, are included, but only when they are “complete,” as in the case of the Ajaz/Ajazz LPs. However, this is a minor shortcoming in a work that is not only long overdue, but also highly welcome for the impressive amount of new and corrected information that it does offer.

Originally Published