washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Music

Jazz Giant Artie Shaw Dies at Age 94

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; 5:24 PM

Artie Shaw, 94, the dynamic, cantankerous swing era icon who abruptly quit the music business in 1954, disappointed by the industry's demand for dance music over the jazz innovation he championed, died Dec. 30 at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

A clarinetist and bandleader, Mr. Shaw's music sold more than 100 million records with a stunning series of hit-making songs, including Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust." His music so defined its period that Time magazine wrote that on the verge of World War II, the United States meant to the Germans "skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw."

Still, he dismissed those popular recordings as pap, preferring to explore new sounds even if it alienated listeners and his music-company bosses.

Constantly driving for new possibilities, he was among the first white bandleaders to hire a black singer full-time, in his case Billie Holiday. He used stringed instruments to fuse classical and jazz music and delved into hard-driving bebop, "chamber jazz" groups with harpsichord and Afro-Cuban sounds. His unconventional theme song was the bluesy dirge "Nightmare."

His penchant for musical surprise earned rapturous praise from reviewers rediscovering those works decades after he left the business. Many of those songs were on the 2001 release "Artie Shaw: Self Portrait," which prompted Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman to write that Mr. Shaw "produced some of the most extraordinary American music of the 20th century."

In his heyday, the darkly handsome clarinetist resembled a matinee idol and added to his allure by marrying glamorous actresses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, two of his eight wives. As early as 1938, he was earning $60,000 weekly from jukebox recordings and playing dances and concerts. He was a formidable rival of bandleaders Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and clarinetist Benny Goodman, his closest competitor.

On clarinet, Mr. Shaw had a fuller, more-dulcet tone than Goodman. Although Goodman was labeled the "King of Swing," jazz enthusiasts still debate whether Mr. Shaw better deserved the sobriquet, and his fans compensated by dubbing him the "King of the Clarinet."

To Mr. Shaw, there was no contest. Though he respected Goodman's talent, he said he felt Goodman's recordings were formulaic. "Benny Goodman played clarinet," he said. "I played music."

While many of his counterparts played long after the big-band era gave way to rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s, Mr. Shaw gave it up without much trouble and moved to Spain for five years. He credited that decision to a combination of exhaustion, boredom, Internal Revenue Service probes and a desire to spend his time writing, which he did for the rest of his life.

"I was a compulsive perfectionist, and in the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last," he once told a reporter about why he left music. "You have to be Lawrence Welk or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I'm not able to do that. I can't even make the same jokes twice in a row."

Since devoting himself to writing, his output included an autobiography, "The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity" (1952), a scaldingly self-critical book that received positive notices, and two volumes of fiction, "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!" (1965) and "The Best of Intentions and Other Stories" (1989). He also spent years on a multivolume autobiography.

His prose tapped into tales of his oft-chronicled private life. Besides Turner and Gardner, he also married actresses Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes as well as Elizabeth Kern, the daughter of composer Jerome Kern, and Kathleen Winsor, author of the novel "Forever Amber." His first two marriages were to noncelebrities, Jane Carns and Margaret Allen.

He was married in most cases less than two years. He often disparaged his wives for being less than literate.

To England's Daily Mail, he spoke of Gardner this way: "Why did I marry her? Did you ever look at Ava Gardner? She was beautiful, that's the first thing I was attracted to. I didn't know it was the wrong reason. I remember we were sitting around in my house talking about Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises' with some writer friends when she disappeared.

"I went out looking for her and she said: 'I got so sick of it, I didn't know what the hell they were talking about.' I offered her the book to read but she didn't want to. Ava wanted instant knowledge; for her it should have come in an envelope marked 'add water.' "

His last marriage, to Keyes, lasted from 1957 to 1985.

The divorces usually centered on an aspect of Mr. Shaw's gruff personality, on display to a Washington Post reporter in 1978 when he explained why he never saw his two sons, one by Kern, one by Dowling. "I didn't get along with the mothers," Mr. Shaw said, "so why should I get along with the kids?"

In the same interview, he said he never regretted the redirection from music. "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?" he added. "Well, no point in false modesty about that. I was the best. And when you look at those of us who were big then -- Miller, Dorsey, Basie, Goodman -- I think my life has turned out the best, too."

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, born in New York on May 23, 1910, to an impoverished Jewish family, grew up in New Haven, Conn. According to his autobiography, he was a shy youth made more so by anti-Semitism he encountered in Connecticut. Feelings of insecurity were the "really basic reason" he changed his name, although for years he claimed brevity was the cause.

At 13, he bought a saxophone and left home three years later to play professionally. By the mid-1920s, he had switched to clarinet and was a member of territory bands in Cleveland.

In 1929 and 1930, he was with one of the top bands of the era, Irving Aaronson's Commanders. While touring with that group, he was first introduced to symphonic music of Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok and Ravel, all of which later influenced his use of classical motifs in swing.

In the early 1930s, he was in demand as a studio musician in New York. He also took literature classes at Columbia University and befriended iconic jazz trumpeter Leon "Bix" Beiderbeck, about whom Mr. Shaw tried to write a book four years after Beiderbeck died of alcohol-related symptoms in 1931.

In 1935, Mr. Shaw had a critical triumph with his composition "Interlude in B Flat" at a swing concert at New York's Imperial Theatre. Contrasted with the blaring bands on stage, Mr. Shaw's "hot" clarinet backed by a coolly sophisticated string quartet and a rhythm section was a sensation, and the act got Mr. Shaw a music contract.

But when the style flopped on tour, Mr. Shaw assembled a more-traditional swing band that benefited from the arrangements of Jerry Gray, including what became the definitive big-band interpretation of "Begin the Beguine."

He almost regretted the notoriety he received for his first hit, "Begin the Beguine" (1938), which he played constantly for demanding fans.

Mr. Shaw let them know how he felt, calling jitterbuggers "morons." He called music executives "thieves."

Other early musical successes were "Stardust" (featuring a luminous introduction by trumpeter Billy Butterfield and a legendary solo by trombonist Jack Jenney), "Back Bay Shuffle," "Moonglow," "Rosalie," "Frenesi" and "Summit Ridge Drive."

In 1938, Mr. Shaw hired Holiday and she recorded one of his enduring songs, "Any Old Times." But she left the next year, angered by Southern crowds hostile to her appearance with a white band. Music company officials were also unhappy with Shaw's choice of a blues singer instead of a more pop-oriented crooner who would appeal to dancers.

Though she reportedly respected Mr. Shaw's musicality, Holiday said she did not much care for his personality. She derided him as "Jesus Christ, King of the Clarinet, and His Band."

Losing Holiday, along with what he saw as the musical compromise of playing standard dance music, was too confining for Mr. Shaw. He walked away from the band, the engagements, the contracts, his followers.

Of course, he would return, with bands that at times included singers Helen Forrest, Tony Pastor and Mel Torme, trumpeters Max Kaminsky and Roy Eldridge, trombonist Ray Conniff, drummers Buddy Rich and Dave Tough and guitarists Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow.

From 1936 to 1954, he fronted about 10 groups big and small.

"He was a thinker," former Metronome editor-in-chief George T. Simon wrote in his book "The Big Bands," "a much deeper thinker than most bandleaders, a man concerned with and constantly analyzing his place and the place of his music in society."

During World War II, Mr. Shaw led a few Navy bands, sometimes playing up to four concerts a day in battle zones and demanding top-level musicianship at each performance. His experiences resulted in a nervous breakdown.

In the late 1940s, he performed classical music at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. He started and reformatted his jazz-chamber group, the Gramercy 5, throughout his music career.

By the mid-1950s, the rigors of touring were too stressful. He told a reporter that he could not go on that way, putting it succinctly: "I saw death approaching."

After his hiatus in Spain, Mr. Shaw returned to the United States in 1960 and formed a short-lived film distribution firm.

In the early 1980s, a Shaw big band was revived under the direction of other musicians. Mr. Shaw did not play, but the group spawned a Shaw resurgence, including Brigitte Berman's Academy Award-winning documentary, "Artie Shaw: Time is All You've Got" (1985).

It also led to releases of his recordings, and not just his better-known titles. When some of his chamber-jazz music was repackaged in the early 1990s, author and jazz critic Gary Giddins was dazzled.

"These are among the finest performances by one of the eminent clarinetists of the century, and among the most enchanting small band recordings in jazz history, virtually unrivaled in defining the nexus between swing and bop," he said. "The music is romantic, daring and exquisitely played."

Where other musicians might feel vindicated for the reappraisal, Mr. Shaw remained dissatisfied. In interviews and lectures, he seemed to enjoy retelling the story of how his Who's Who epitaph read, "He did the best he could with the material at hand."

He said he might consider amending that to a simple: "Go away."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company