Friday Night Jazz: Artie Shaw

Another guest musical director for FNJ this week: Eddie Elfenbein of Crossing Wall Street on Artie Shaw. Take it away, Eddie:


Rare_and_unreleased Artie Shaw was cool. Not Elvis cool or Sinatra cool, but a darker, more subdued cool.

What Shaw did was make things look easy. Check out this clip and notice how, even after six decades, his music hasn’t aged a bit. It’s still fresh and smooth. It’s just…cool. (You gotta love Shaw’s reply to the compliments: “Yeah, yeah. Glass of water.” Pure cool.)

Artie Shaw was the very last of the big bandleaders. He died a year ago at age 94 and fifty years after his last performance. He wound up outliving all the greats—Goodman, Herman, Miller. Those names may loom larger today, but back then, Shaw’s star was the brightest. He was making $60,000 a week—not bad for the Depression. With America poised to enter World War II, Time magazine reported that Germans’ vision of America was “skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw.”

Fascists, apparently, have issues with tall buildings.

When Shaw hired Billie Holiday, he became the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black singer. But Shaw detested the limelight. In fact, Shaw hated the words “jazz” and “swing.” No, he considered himself a musician. He hated the audience. He hated the singers. He hated the dancers. He hated other bandleaders (“Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music.”)

By 1951, Shaw walked away from music altogether and became—what else?—a dairy farmer. Crazy, maybe, but cool in its own way. Duke Ellington told him, “Man, you got more guts than any of us.

So what did Shaw like? Women. Lots and lots of them. He was married eight times. He nabbed Betty Grable which would have pleased most men. Not Shaw. While they were engaged, he ran off with Lana Turner. (Whoa, Duke was right!) Shaw had an affair with Rita Hayworth. He dumped Judy Garland. He married Ava Gardner before Sinatra. How in earth did he have time enough time for music?

Ah, the music. Brilliant. Here’s an example: In 1938, Shaw took an obscure and forgotten Cole Porter song and made it a jazz classic. Have a listen to “Begin the Beguine.

If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jewish bandleader playing Negro music written by a homosexual.

Very_best_of_artie_shaw Exceedingly trivial trivia: “Begin the Beguine” has been performed a gazillion times since. In the movie, The Rocketeer, it’s performed by Melora Hardin, who’s better known as Jan in The Office. (Told you it was trivial.)

If you’ve never heard of Shaw and want to get your feet wet, I’d recommend: The Very Best of Artie Shaw

That pretty much has it all. Personally, I love “Star Dust” and “Deep Purple.” Wonderful stuff.

Two others you might enjoy are:  The Complete Gramercy Five Sessions (all the big band guys made smaller bands after the war); and Last Recordings: Rare and Unreleased.


BR adds:  Thanks Eddy — nicely done. There is a terrific recording of Shaw over at NPR:  Performance by Shaw of Shaw’s 1940 Concerto for Clarinet

videos after the jump . .

Artie Shaw – Everything is Jumpin’ (1940)

Begin the Beguine

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. Eclectic commented on May 4

    “If you’re keeping score, that’s a Jewish bandleader playing Negro music written by a homosexual.”

    Yep, we’re keepin’ score, and you don’t bingo until you can come up with a Negro bandleader playin’ homosexual music written by a Jew.

    Clock’s runnin’.

  2. Eclectic commented on May 4

    I’ll settle for a homosexual bandleader playin’ Klezmer written by a Negro… although I expect that would present you with great difficulty.

  3. Eclectic commented on May 4

    “So what did Shaw like? Women. Lots and lots of them. He was married eight times.”

    Evidently, he was a failure at developing interpersonal relationships. The question then becomes: Why?

    I suspect that your analysis is incorrect. Shaw in reality probably didn’t like women very much… and certainly didn’t have any respect for them.

  4. Eclectic commented on May 4

    Amy could sing with ’em. They’d just have to match tempo and Amy’d have to be sober.

    But, God Almighty, what that would sound like!

  5. Eclectic commented on May 4

    I suppose that would be a mostly Honky band, with a few Negroes, playin’ music written by a Jew.

    I don’t know if any homosexuals are involved, but I suspect so.

    BTW: I wish no offense to any of my Honky brethren.

  6. Eclectic commented on May 5

    Didn’t intend to distract from the Shaw piece. Indeed, he was marvelous and your musical selections as topics are truly inspired.

  7. Eclectic commented on May 5

    Whuzzat Buddy Rich I saw float by?

  8. randy commented on May 5

    i get my dose of “big band and swing” from npr’s swing shift. it comes on every saturday night at eight, right after a praire home companion. i try not to miss either.i love to watch my youngest daughter and my grand-son dance. the old lady and myself even shake a tail feather now and then

  9. John Thompson commented on May 5

    Answer, all good swing music is all sexual, I would assume. So I’d say maybe Duke Ellington playing Cole Porter????

    Deep Purple with Hellen Forest is one I own and adore by Shaw.

  10. Eclectic commented on May 6

    Sorry, John… it seems that Cole Porter was a Protestant.

    Close, but you don’t win a cigar.

    Hmmm, let’s see… now, had Ellington been gay… and had Porter written Klezmer while secretly being a Negro passing for white, I could accommodate your observation as a fit for number 2.

    But, you’d have to offer some convincing racial, ethnic, sexual and religious research to back it up.

    I wonder… would it be worth the time and effort to do it?

    Not that you would John, because I’m sure you’ve understood the basis for my little parody today. I don’t think it would’ve made much difference if Shaw’d been pink polka-dotted or a striped ape, his music would’ve been just as good. And, too, I think his music w-a-s his religion.

    No, the only score that matters is the score for what you deliver. What a great world it would be if that were the only score we all wanted to keep.

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