I first encountered Artie Shaw’s playing as a teenager. At that time, the local New York TV stations would play old movies until sign-off, usually the same dozen old movies. In the regular rotation of filler stuff was a film called Second Chorus. Seeing the movie later in life, I realized that it was a grandiose excuse to publicize Shaw and his band, a feature-film length video, a prehistoric A Hard Day’s Night. Unlike the Beatles film, it featured some of the biggest stars of the era, Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith, both playing struggling musicians whose goal in life was to get in Shaw’s band and schtupp the singer.
In the period when I first saw the film, I was studying classical clarinet and was programmed, as many students of clarinet were (and are), to completely diss jazz-clarinet players. I was not as bad as some, as I’d grown up hearing calypso-clarinet players who were undeniably great. Nonetheless, I was still prepared to dismiss him, yet I couldn’t. I remember the clarity of his tone, a harder, edgier, and more modern tone than Benny Goodman’s. He could play stuff that made harmonic sense way up high, and where Goodman’s playing seemed both triadic and ornamental, Shaw’s note choices seemed to foreshadow the discipline that would become bebop.
But what I also remember is Shaw’s mood. In A Hard Day’s Night, the Fab Four can hardly keep themselves from smiling, thinking about how much money they might make. Shaw, in the same scenario, looks completely pissed off, as if he can’t wait to go home and read a book or something. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he wasn’t acting pissed—he was pissed. Here’s a guy who referred to some of his most rabid fans, the “bobby soxers,” as morons. He was artistically a cut above his swing-era clarinet/bandleader competitors in every way, and I think his real artistic competitors were clarinetists like Jimmy Hamilton, Buster Bailey and Barney Bigard, but as black musicians none of them was in a position to compete with him business-wise.
Goodman had lots of classical things written for him (including major pieces by Copland, Bernstein and Bartok); Shaw wrote his own. The Goodman band’s theme song was “Let’s Dance,” a big, peppy hit; the Shaw band was identified with a tune called “Nightmare,” a fairly dissonant piece that could have been the soundtrack to a jazzy horror film. Goodman integrated his band with Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, nice players; Shaw integrated his band with Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge, arguably two of the most important figures in black culture at the time.
When given the same artistic privilege as Goodman, Shaw consistently made darker, edgier and more personal choices—choices that many of his fans were not in a position to appreciate. If I were him, would I have reacted differently? Maybe, maybe not. If I’d gotten a chance to sleep with Ava Gardner, would I have done it? Sure. But quitting music altogether is not a choice that I would make. Perhaps he never really felt appreciated for the things he appreciated about himself and his band, and was actually in a position where he could afford to leave the field.
Since Artie Shaw stopped playing clarinet, lots of developments have occurred in the music that must have interested him. He even led groups and got other clarinetists to play his own part, for the most part guys who couldn’t touch him. I just wish he could have played longer, and I wonder what his impact would have been. He was a clearly a “third stream” thinker, and while projects of a more adventurous nature might have been beyond his swing-era fans (making them less lucrative for himself and his label), he was in a position to get more of them done than almost anyone else. I think fame and commercial success were more important to him than he ever really wanted to admit. He was like a boxer who preferred to retire on top. Did he fear his own commercial decline?Originally Published