My Debt to Artie Shaw

If it hadn’t been for Artie Shaw, I might not be writing about jazz here (or any other place). When I was 11 years old, walking down a street in Boston, I heard music coming out of a record store that made me shout aloud in excited pleasure. I rushed in, demanding, “What is that?” Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare,” I was told. Before then, the only music that had affected me so viscerally was the passionate, mesmerizing, often-improvisatory singing of the hazan, the cantor in Orthodox synagogues on the High Holiday days. The hazan sounded at times as if he was arguing with God, and the depth of his witnessing to the human condition later connected me with black blues.

In the definitive Artie Shaw collection, Self Portrait (RCA Victor/Bluebird), Richard Sudhalter says “Nightmare” is “a keening, almost cantorial melody in A minor, as different musically from the theme songs of his bandleading colleagues as Shaw was different from them personally and temperamentally.” I think I remember Shaw himself saying that he based the piece on an actual cantorian theme. As he said in the Self Portrait set, “Certainly I can’t deny the influence of my Russian-Jewish-Austrian ancestry.”

Orrin Keepnews, the master orchestrater of reissues, is responsible for Self Portrait, for which Shaw made the selections from every band he ever led. He included airchecks, which he felt were truer to what he had in mind than studio recordings. Keepnews writes that when Shaw and Benny Goodman were rivals, “You had to make a choice…. You were either for Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman.” Back then, and even now, I get into arguments when I claim that while Goodman surely could swing and was a superb technician, Artie Shaw surpassed him in the range of his imagination and the exhilaration he conveyed of continually expecting more of himself and his horn.

As Matt Snyder once wrote of the clarinetist, “Shaw’s playing was on a consistently higher level linearly and harmonically [than Goodman’s]…. Of all the big band leaders, Shaw may have been the most musically gifted.” I was pleased to see in the New York Times obituary, written and archived long ago by the now late John S. Wilson, that clarinetist Barney Bigard, who brought a New Orleans sound to the Duke Ellington orchestra, regarded Shaw as the greatest clarinetist ever, and that alto saxophonist Phil Woods, who arrived after the swing era, models his clarinet playing on Shaw’s.

At 11, I was taking clarinet lessons assiduously from an alumnus of the Boston Symphony, but hearing what Shaw could say and sing on that instrument led me into the liberating sounds and rhythms of jazz. It was during the Depression, and working as an errand boy on a horse-drawn fruit wagon, I was able to buy 78s of Basie, Duke, Bessie Smith and Shaw at a cost of three for a dollar. Years later, when I was New York editor of Down Beat, Artie Shaw would call me from time to time to discuss not only my limitless deficiencies as a jazz critic but also all manner of things, from politics and literature to other things that came within his wide-ranging interests. As soon as he was on the line, I knew that for the next hour or so my role was to listen. It was hard to get a word or two in. (Interviewing Benny Goodman was different. Cautious, he would often deflect a question by asking, “What do you think?”)

What I admired about Shaw was that he exemplified what Ben Webster once told me when I was still in Boston: “If the rhythm section isn’t making it, go for yourself.” Artie Shaw refused to let himself be limited, even by success. When he first quit the music scene in 1939, walking off the bandstand at the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, he said later: “I wanted to resign from the planet, not just music. It stopped being fun with success. Money got in the way. Everybody got greedy-including me. Fear set in. I got miserable when I became a commodity.” In 1954, at 43, he left for good and never again performed.

He turned to writing and an array of other interests because his curiosity about how much one could learn about learning never flagged. As he said in the notes to Self Portrait, “I’m not comfortable with categories, and I distrust most definitions. The word definition is based on the word finite, which would seem to indicate that once we’ve defined something, we don’t need to think about it anymore.”

On January 7, the National Endowment for the Arts declared Artie Shaw a Jazz Master. I sure would have liked to hear his acceptance speech. It wouldn’t have been humble. He knew his worth, and then some. In a 1978 Washington Post interview, he said: “I don’t care if I’m forgotten. I became a specialist in nonspecialization a long time ago. For instance, I’m an expert fly fisherman. And in 1962, I ranked fourth nationally in precision riflery. My music? Well, no point in false modesty about that. I was the best.”

Shaw died, at the age of 94, on December 30, but his music will continue to reverberate. I can’t forget him because he brought me into the music that has given me ceaseless reason to shout aloud in pleasure.