Friday, December 31, 2004

BIGBANDOBIT: Clarinet-playing, bandleading, composing, multi-marrying Artie Shaw has died. Never comfortable as a celebrity, and always refusing to fall back on cloning earlier success, Shaw was such a huge star that as America finally got round to entering the Second World War, Time magazine told its readers that to Germans, the US meant "sky-scrapers, Clark Gable, and Artie Shaw."

Shaw was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1910; he started with the saxophone as a fourteen year-old before moving after a few months to the clarinet. He took to the instrument so quickly that he was touring and playing across the US before his sixteenth birthday. He settled in Cleveland, where he worked under Austin Wylie. A fascination with "race records" lead to a deep respect for Louis Armstrong, and provided Shaw with the influences he would take with him to a position in the Hollywood-based Aaronson band and on to a further relocation to New York in 1930. The tensions between Shaw's interest in the work of modern classicists Bartok, Stravinksy and Ravel, and the commercial demands of his employers (he was a sax and clarinet for hire in the New York radio and studio scene) lead to disillusionment with the music business. Shaw withdrew to Pennsylvania to try and carve a new career as an author.

He would return to music as a sideline: trying to complete his formal education, Shaw moved back to New York to study and did studio work to pay his way through college. In 1936, Artie made his first appearance as a bandleader in what is generally accepted to be the first ever Swing Concert. Invited to fill in the gaps between more established acts, Shaw pulled together an octet to play his composition Interlude in B-flat (in a style now known as Third-Stream Music).

The Artie Shaw orchestra rapidly had a hit with Begin The Beguine, and Shaw took the then unprecedented step of hiring a black female singer as a full-time band member when he hired Billie Holiday. Although able to command massive paydays, Shaw was uncomfortable with his status as King of Swing. What appears to have disgusted him most was the focus on him rather than his music: "The jitterbugs were a pack of morons" he said, "I hate selling myself. I hate the fans. They won't even let me play without interrupting me. They scream when I play. They don't listen. They don't care about the music." He took another break, visiting Mexico and again rethinking his sound. His comeback, Frenesi, used a large studio band and included a full string section.

After Pearl Harbour, Shaw thought he was again quitting the music industry when he enlisted in the navy, only to be asked to create a service band to tour the Pacific theatre. Although not fighting, his proximity to some of the bombing raids lead to a medical discharge and, returning to civilian life, Shaw divorced his first wife Betty Kern and created a new band.

In 1949, Shaw shifted direction again, with a tour and album based on non-jazz (or long-form) classical music for the clarinet. The Modern Music for the Clarinet set drew on Shostakovich, Debusst and Poulenc as well as Gershwin and Porter, finally giving Shaw the chance to directly pay homage to those formative influences.

As you'd expect, Shaw's response to the acclaim this new venture received was to head to the exit; he bought an upstate New York dairy farm and finally completed his first book, a autobiographical-ish work called The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity. He did continue to create a number of big and small bands including the still-popular Gramercy 5.

He quit the clarinet in 1954, and the US a year later, living in Spain for five years. A second book came in 1964, shortly after a return to Connecticut. Brief returns to showbusiness notwithstanding (he distributed movies in the mid-fifties and made a one-off return to launch a new orchestra in 1983) Shaw spent most of the second half of the century away from the public eye. "I got out of the Artie Shaw business" was his wry take on his retirement.

Amongst it all, he found time for eight marriages - as well as Betty, his eternal troth was also pledged to Ava Gardner and Lana Turner - and to win plaudits as a marksman and fly-fisher. Earlier this year, he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award.