Commentary Magazine

Why Artie Shaw Fell Silent

Artie shaw, the clarinetist and band leader who died in January at the age of ninety-four, was the last surviving giant of the Swing Era, the decade-long interlude (1935-45) during which American popular music was dominated by the medium-sized instrumental ensembles known as “big bands” that played jazz and jazz-flavored dance music.

Shaw's hit record of Cole Porter's “Begin the Beguine,” made in 1938, established him overnight as one of the most successful bandleaders of the day—his group rivaled and occasionally surpassed in popularity that of his fellow clarinetist Benny Goodman—as well as an innovative soloist whose playing was regarded by many musicians as superior in certain respects to Goodman's. He also became a celebrity of a very different kind, a glamorous, much-publicized ladies' man who was married (and divorced) eight times and whose wives included the film stars Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Yet his passing, though marked by lengthy obituaries in newspapers across America, surely came as a surprise to many readers who recalled his music with fondness but assumed that the man who made it had died long ago.

Why did Shaw's reputation fade? Because he decided in 1954 to retire, not merely from bandleading but also from playing the clarinet. While he occasionally led a big band in his old age, he never played again, despite the fact that he was at the peak of his powers when he chose to withdraw from public life. Many of his contemporaries, by contrast—Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton—remained in the public eye until their deaths, continuing to perform long after the Swing Era was over and profiting from the renewed attention paid to big bands by the media from the 70's onward. Because Shaw did not, he ceased in large part to be remembered.

To be sure, he never fully disappeared from view. His recordings were reissued frequently, and from time to time he gave interviews in which he was invariably asked why he chose to stop playing at the age of forty-four. To this he usually replied that giving up the clarinet had been like cutting off “a gangrenous right arm . . . to save your life.” Yet his stated reasons for quitting invariably failed to persuade, repeat them though he did throughout his half-century-long retirement.

Instead of playing, Shaw wrote. In addition to a full-length memoir, The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity (1952), he later brought out two collections of short stories, neither of which met with any great enthusiasm. Most of his latter-day energies went into a monstrously long, still-unpublished autobiographical novel called The Education of Albie Snow. It may well be that this book, should it ever become available, will shed light on the peculiarities of temperament that led him to put down his horn. But even without it, a great deal is already known about the life and work of Artie Shaw—enough to speculate on why one of the finest jazz musicians of the 20th century fell silent halfway through his long and remarkable life.1


Born in 1910 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was the only child of a poor Yiddish-speaking tailor who dismissed as foolishness his son's love of music. But when his father deserted the family, necessity became the spur, and Art Shaw (the name young Arthur took early on, having become, in his words, “ashamed of being a Jew”) turned himself into a self-taught journeyman saxophonist, working with dance bands around the country. In time he returned to New York and began playing in radio orchestras, and before long emerged as one of the city's top studio musicians.

Profitable as his work was, Shaw found it stultifying. He was passionate about jazz, but in the early years of the Depression saw no way to earn a living (and support his mother) except by playing banal commercial music. The edge of self-loathing he thereby acquired was honed still further by his growing awareness that there was a world beyond music of which he knew little. His response was to become a compulsive reader and to audit classes at Columbia and New York University. At the same time, though, he longed to be rich and famous. For the next quarter-century he would shuttle restlessly between these two psychological poles.

By 1936 the phenomenal success of Benny Goodman's band had cleared a path for ambitious jazzmen who wanted to reach a mass audience without watering down their music beyond recognition. Accordingly, Shaw, who had switched from alto saxophone to clarinet, gave up his lucrative studio gigs and started his own band. But it was a deliberately unconventional one, whose instrumentation included a string quartet. Though the group recorded to striking effect, it failed to appeal to dancers, and Shaw had no choice but to break it up and start from scratch.2

In The Trouble with Cinderella, Shaw recalls a conversation he had around this time with a dance-hall manager who found his band unsatisfactory. Said the manager:

Your problem is to get people in here. And if you want to take your pants down on that goddamn bandstand every night and take a crap up there, and if people'll pay to come in here and see you do it—I'll pay you to take a crap up there every night.

It was an encounter Shaw never forgot.


Determined to make his mark by starting (in his words) “the loudest goddamn band in the world,” Shaw put together a 15-piece ensemble without strings—but one that nonetheless bore his distinctive stamp. It played an attractive mix of standards, show tunes, and danceable jazz originals, arranged by Jerry Gray (frequently in collaboration with Shaw) in a straightforwardly swinging style marked by what the clarinetist described as “a crystal-clear transparency.” Disdainful of the pop singers whom commercial considerations required him to feature, Shaw daringly hired the young Billie Holiday to sing with the all-white “Art Shaw and His New Music,” as the group was briefly known.3

In 1938 Victor Records, for which Benny Goodman recorded, signed the twenty-eight-year-old Shaw to Bluebird, its lower-priced companion label, and in the process changed his first name to “Artie.” His first record was the crisp, incisive Jerry Gray arrangement of “Begin the Beguine.” It was an instant hit, and within a matter of weeks Shaw had metamorphosed into what he later called “a sort of weird, jazz-band-leading, clarinet-tooting, jitterbug-surrounded Symbol of American Youth.” Although he was deeply ambivalent about the success for which he had longed, going so far as to give interviews in which he described his young fans as “morons,” nothing he said or did could put them off, and by 1939 he was one of the most famous men in America.

For all his oft-expressed contempt of commercialism, Shaw had an uncanny knack for making good music that pleased the public. The “Beguine” ensemble, which also featured the explosive drumming of the twenty-one-year-old Buddy Rich and a meticulously coached saxophone section that played with unprecedented fluidity and grace, was a nonpareil dance band, by turns lyrical and galvanizingly hot. Though its arrangements were tailored to please ordinary listeners, the simplicity of those arrangements had the paradoxical effect of providing an ideal background for Shaw's own richly elaborate improvisations. On the clarinet, his intense, saxophone-like tone was sharply focused but never shrill, even when he was cavorting in the instrument's highest register—he extended the upper range of the clarinet far beyond its normal limits—and his blues solos were tinged with a pungent modal color reminiscent of synagogue chant.

The “Beguine” band was essentially conventional in sound and style, and Shaw was its only major soloist (though Buddy Rich, immature though he then was, soon evolved into something approaching that). Even so, it managed to transcend the conventions of the early Swing Era through a combination of virtuosity, precision, and sheer élan, and its recordings, especially the thrilling live radio broadcasts of such popular songs as “The Carioca” and “At Sundown,” which were commercially released on LP years later, retain their appeal to this day. But its increasingly neurotic leader proved incapable of coping with the band's popularity. In 1939, a year after its first recording, he walked off a New York bandstand in the middle of a set and never came back.


Within a matter of months, Shaw had moved to Hollywood and started another band, this one equipped with nine string players and a pianist, Johnny Guarnieri, who doubled on harpsichord with the band's in-house jazz combo, the Gramercy Five. This new group was almost as popular as its predecessor, turning out an elegantly poised version of “Star Dust” (recorded in 1940) that remains one of the best-remembered performances of Hoagy Carmichael's most famous song. For all its seeming exoticism, the Gramercy Five proved no less appealing to the public, recording an original blues number called “Summit Ridge Drive” that gave Shaw yet another hit.

In 1941, the “Star Dust” band gave way to a 32-piece orchestra with fifteen string players, billed as “Artie Shaw and His Symphonic Swing.” Shaw, who had been studying with the classical composer David Diamond, now sought to meld jazz and classical music in a manner reminiscent of Paul Whiteman's late-20's orchestra, using the bluesy trumpeter-vocalist Oran “Hot Lips” Page in somewhat the same way that Whiteman had featured the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, an early Shaw idol. The erratic but brilliant drummer Dave Tough drove the potentially unwieldy group with consummate subtlety, and Paul Jordan contributed original compositions like “Suite No. 8,” in which the string section was not tacked on as an afterthought but integrated into the ensemble with deceptive ease.

Shaw ran the band, like its predecessors, with an iron hand. Though he was no longer doing much arranging, he edited the scores played by the group in order to make them reflect his tastes as exactly as possible. Band members were given few opportunities for individual expression, save within the tightly controlled contexts created by Shaw and his arrangers; even his own solos were subordinated to the total musical effect. Nevertheless, the group's recordings, both in and out of the studio, are tremendously exciting, and the Symphonic Swing appears in retrospect to have offered Shaw the fullest possible expression of his wide-ranging musical interests.

Shaw broke up the Symphonic Swing after Pearl Harbor, enlisting in the U.S. Navy and touring the Pacific with a service band that played under fire at Guadalcanal. Combat fatigue forced him stateside in 1944, where he started a new, stringless band featuring the great jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge and a library of arrangements that ranged from the Basie-style charts of Buster Harding to such wryly witty Eddie Sauter originals as “The Maid with the Flaccid Air.”

Though the new group was known as an “arranger's band,” Shaw was, as always, firmly in command, and its performances reflected his lifelong liking for versatility—and accessibility. Woody Herman's contemporaneous, bop-influenced First Herd was far looser in its approach, which may explain why jazz critics have always preferred it to Shaw's postwar band, even though both had a strongly progressive tilt.


Like the First Herd, the Shaw band of 1945 contained young players, among them the guitarist Barney Kessel and the pianist Dodo Marmarosa, who were interested in the emerging style of jazz known as bebop. The ever-curious clarinetist began to explore this new idiom alongside them in an updated Gramercy Five. Following a brief hiatus during which he experimented with semi-classical arrangements for clarinet and chamber orchestra of pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Shostakovich, he returned yet again to the bandstand in 1949, this time with a full-fledged bop band.4

By then, Shaw had cracked bebop's complex musical code, and his solos were as harmonically elaborate and modern-sounding as those of his younger sidemen. It was one of the most profound musical transformations ever effected by a well-known Swing-Era instrumentalist, yet Shaw brought it off without surrendering his individuality. Even as a bopper, he remained himself.

The big bands were dying off fast, however, and Shaw's broke up after just five months, the victim of changing popular tastes—as well as of his own reluctance to lose his hard-won status as a pop idol by playing challenging fare for uncomprehending audiences.5 Thereafter he shuttled in and out of music, taking a year off to write The Trouble with Cinderella, a self-conscious but oddly compelling memoir in which he catalogued the destructive effects of what he called “$ucce$$.” Having spent the previous decade in psychoanalysis, he had come to recognize that his mixed feelings about his profession had shaped the whole of his career. For all his longing to free himself from the seductive lures of superstardom, Shaw had never been quite willing to turn his back on fame:

I finally came to realize that there must be something basically wrong with a fellow who tells himself he only wants enough money to keep going while he tries to do something he wants to do, but who for some reason never seems to be able to get together enough money to go ahead and do it.

Two years later, he put together one last Gramercy Five, a bop-flavored yet audience-friendly group, influenced by the then-popular George Shearing Quintet, in which Shaw joined forces with the guitarist Tal Farlow and the pianist Hank Jones, two of the top jazz soloists of the 50's. Stimulated by their superb playing, he rose to new heights of musical sophistication. It seemed he was finally ready to give up on “$ucce$$” and settle for being the uniquely individual jazz soloist he was.

Instead, he stopped playing music, having apparently come to the conclusion that since he was incapable of balancing his need for serious self-expression with his perverse longing for celebrity, his only hope of sanity was to get out of the business altogether. While one may take his innumerable protestations on this subject with a grain of salt—he must also have known that his brand of jazz no longer appealed to the general public—the fact remains that he never again picked up his clarinet.


Music's loss was not literature's gain. For all its interest as a personal document, The Trouble with Cinderella is too evidently the work of an intellectual manqué, an autodidact eager to show off his hard-won knowledge. (Each chapter begins with a different epigraph.) Unfortunately, Shaw had little to say about anything other than himself—he was in private life a garrulous, self-obsessed monologist—which undoubtedly explains why he had no success as a writer of fiction, and why The Education of Albie Snow has remained unpublished.

How, then, was it possible for him to give up music, at which he was talented beyond measure, in favor of writing, for which he had a genuine but limited gift? Was it a matter of self-preservation—or of self-deception? Or did his conflicts go deeper still? In an interview with Richard Sudhalter, the tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome, who played with Shaw in the 40's, made a remark that cut straight to the heart of the matter:

I still wonder whether part of it wasn't just some need to see himself as above being just a musician. He didn't want to be on the plane of ordinary people; he wanted to be an intellectual, in the worst way.

I doubt that anything more revealing has ever been said about Artie Shaw. It was not merely that he was ambivalent about popular music. His ambivalence, it seems clear, encompassed music as a career.

Would he have felt differently about music—and about himself—had he aspired instead to be Arthur Arshawsky, first clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic? Certainly his attempts to add strings to his big bands (and harpsichord to the Gramercy Five), as well as his continuing interest in classical music, suggest as much. By contrast, to play accessible jazz for popular audiences simply was not good enough, and it could only have galled him that he did it so well. “Art was never meant to be entertaining,” he said on countless occasions. But his was, hugely so—and this made it impossible for him to see it as art.6

At the very end of his life, however, Shaw did seem to accept the nature of his achievement, even as he had long ago accepted the Jewishness that he had once changed his name in order to escape. In 2001 he helped to put together Self Portrait, a boxed set of his finest recordings. In the liner notes he made the following statement:

A lot of the music that bands like mine were playing 50 or 60 years ago was functional: people danced to it. I certainly had no idea that a half-century later people would think of it as “concert” music. Or just music, period. . . . At some point—probably while I was in the Navy, as a result of seeing the way those men reacted to our music—it began to dawn on me that whether I realized it or not I'd created a good-sized chunk of durable Americana. Something lasting.

It may in fact have taken longer than that for him to realize it, but fortunately Artie Shaw lived to know that his music, “functional” and “entertaining” though it undeniably was, had withstood the test of time. One cannot help wishing he had known it a half-century sooner—although it may also be that by then he had said everything he had to say. “I did all you can do with a clarinet,” he remarked in a 1994 interview. “Any more would have been less.” That might be his epitaph.



1 In addition, Shaw has been the subject of a dry but thorough biographical study, Vladimir Simosko's Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography (1990), and was also written about perceptively by Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era (1989) and by Richard M. Sudhalter in Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 (1999).

2 Except as indicated, all recorded performances by Shaw mentioned in this piece are included in Self Portrait (Bluebird 09026-63808-2, five CD's), which contains studio and live recordings made between 1936 and 1954. The selections were chosen by Shaw and the reissue producer Orrin Keepnews, and the liner notes were written by Shaw in collaboration with Richard Sudhalter. The sound quality is widely variable but never worse than acceptable.

3 When Holiday left a few months later, disgusted by the racist attitudes she encountered as a black singer appearing with a white group, Shaw replaced her with Helen Forrest, the most musically sensitive of the countless “chick singers” who performed with the big bands of the Swing Era.

4 Most of Shaw's classical and semi-classical recordings are collected on The Artistry of Artie Shaw (Hep CD 78).

5 Woody Herman, by contrast, continued to lead uncompromisingly swinging big bands throughout the 50's and after, even during the lean years when such ensembles found little favor with dancers.

6 No doubt it galled him still further that Benny Goodman, whom he regarded as a philistine and held in near-contempt, made a far more serious and thoroughgoing commitment to classical music—and was far more successful playing it than Shaw, who was never more than a (greatly gifted) dilettante.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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