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Swing Bandleader, Clarinetist Artie Shaw Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page B06

Artie Shaw, 94, the dynamic, cantankerous swing-era icon who abruptly quit the music business in 1954, disappointed by the industry's demand for pop tunes over the jazz innovation he championed, died Dec. 30 at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

A clarinetist and bandleader, Mr. Shaw 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 Germans' view of the United States was "skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw."


Big-band leader Artie Shaw plays the clarinet in September 1941. His music sold more than 100 million records with such hits as "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust." (AP)

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Artie Shaw: Highlights from the life and career of the legendary jazz bandleader.
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Still, Mr. Shaw dismissed his most popular recordings as pap, preferring to explore new sounds even if he alienated listeners and his music-company bosses.

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, delved into hard-driving bebop and formed "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 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. 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-and-roll in the mid-1950s, Mr. Shaw gave it up without much trouble and moved to Spain for five years. He cited a combination of exhaustion, boredom, Internal Revenue Service probes and a desire to spend his time writing books, 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.

His literary 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 his oft-chronicled private life. In addition to Turner and Gardner, his wives included 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 non-celebrities Jane Carns and Margaret Allen.

He was married in most cases less than two years and often publicly disparaged his wives as dimwits.

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, by Kern and 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 was born in New York on May 23, 1910, to an impoverished Jewish family. He grew up in New Haven, Conn. According to his autobiography, he was a shy youth made more so by anti-Semitism. 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, then left home three years later to play professionally. By the mid-1920s, he had switched to clarinet.

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 introduced to the 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.

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 string quartet and a rhythm section was a sensation.

He 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 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." She left the next year, angered by southern crowds hostile to her appearance with a white band. Music company officials also were unhappy with Mr. Shaw's choice of a blues singer instead of a more pop-oriented crooner who would appeal to dancers.

Not having 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 and his followers, only to return with bands that at times included singers Helen Forrest and Mel Torme, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, trombonist Ray Conniff, drummers Buddy Rich and Dave Tough and guitarists Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow.

During World War II, Mr. Shaw led a few Navy bands, sometimes playing as many as 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."

In the early 1980s, a Shaw big band was revived under the direction of other musicians. 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 rereleases of his work, including the chamber-jazz music that dazzled jazz critics.

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."


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