Sunday, 20 January 2013

Artie Shaw

I first heard clarinetist Artie Shaw when I was looking into the career of Benny Goodman a year or so ago. I more or less dismissed the music and (with complete irrational snobbery) decided to not include him in the blog. I felt the music came across as too smooth without any jazz sensibility with the exception of his recording of Stardust. I could not have been more wrong. Artie Shaw was a consummate musician with a very colouful career and life and to not at least tip my worthless jazz hat in his direction would be to render the intention of this blog meaningless.

I've been playing a greatest hits of Artie Shaw quite a lot recently. It's impossible not to when the first two songs on the collection are Begin The Beguine and the aforementioned Stardust. The former is just one of those songs that you recognise but you don't know exactly where from. The song was an absolutely massive hit when released in 1938. Shaw himself attributes it to the fact that it was a complex and challenging song but one that contained a very strong melody that was in contrast to the popular Basie style riff arrangements that were popular at the time.

Begin the Beguine by Artie Shaw & His Orchestra on Grooveshark

What sets Artie Shaw apart from his contemporaries was his complete contempt of public life and the music industry. In his short musical career he led more than ten orchestras and disbanded them all within months (it seems that he threw in the towel more times than Little Richard!). Yet he always managed to strike gold on his comebacks working with such talents as Billie Holiday, Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge. Check out Stardust with its utterly sublime trumpet solo from Billy Butterfield on trumpet and Jack Jenney on trombone recorded in 1940. (Shaw himself hits some great high notes on this track as well).

Stardust by Artie Shaw on Grooveshark

He served in World War II in the Pacific theatre and earned a medical discharge due to almost losing his hearing after a Japanese bomb attack on his unit. His return to music in the late 40's saw him produce some of the more innovative and inventive music of his career. He tried his hand at classical clarinet and even took a liking to bebop. ("The first time I heard Charlie Parker, I thought "Very interesting." He was doing some things chordally, that hadn't been done before. I came from the same people.") Yet, like for most of the swing era guys who tried to break into this new scene, it was to prove a commercial flop. 

Shaw's legacy was his striving quest for perfection. After achieving all he felt that he could from his music he put down the clarinet for the final time in 1954 at the age of 44 - staggering considering that he lived until his mid 90s. He spent the remainder of his life focusing on his other love - literature - and wrote a number of works including a biography entitled "The Trouble With Cinderella". The book was surprising in that it hardly mentions his eight marriages including those with such stars as Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. I suppose it has something in common with this blog post then!

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