Artie Shaw

Jazz star of the Swing Era who quit at the height of his artistic achievement
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Arthur Jacob Arshawsky (Artie Shaw), clarinettist, bandleader and writer: born New York 23 May 1910; married first Margaret Allen (marriage dissolved), second Jane Carns (marriage dissolved), third 1940 Lana Turner (marriage dissolved), fourth 1942 Elizabeth Kern (one son; marriage dissolved), fifth 1945 Ava Gardner (marriage dissolved 1946), sixth 1946 Kathleen Winsor (marriage dissolved 1948), seventh 1952 Doris Dowling (one son; marriage dissolved 1956), eighth 1957 Evelyn Keyes (marriage dissolved); died Thousand Oaks, California 30 December 2004.

The clarinettist Artie Shaw was one of the great heroes of jazz. During the Swing Era, his good looks, sex drive and talent made him a gossip columnist's dream. He married a lot of people, eight in all, including the film stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, and Kathleen Winsor, author of the sensational novel Forever Amber. "None of them were real marriages," said Shaw. "They were legalised affairs. In those days you couldn't get a lease on an apartment if you were living in sin." He also had affairs with Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable.

Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were the bandleaders who bestrode the years of swing and, with Buddy de Franco, were the finest jazz clarinet players in history. De Franco described Shaw as, "a much more progressive player than Benny Goodman. He was a more interesting player and would create things harmonically that Goodman never dreamt of." Shaw also had a fatter tone on the clarinet than Goodman's and was incredibly nimble throughout the full range of the instrument. Both men were also capable symphonic players.

"Swing was a publicist's word," Shaw said.

When they talk about "swing music", that was jazz music, and there were big bands playing it and small bands playing it. But jazz must swing and if it doesn't swing, it isn't jazz. That's why swing is, as far as I'm concerned, a verb and not an adjective and not a noun.

Shaw was a groundbreaker. By unbelievable hard work and application, he tried to develop his talents until he was the best at everything he did. Success came and, by the close of the Thirties, Shaw was earning the equivalent of what David Beckham picks up each week today. His imaginative recording of "Begin the Beguine" topped the hit parade for six weeks in 1938 (and remains a familiar request in popular music almost 70 years later) and his band won all the polls. His classic good looks triggered a Hollywood film career for him. In her autobiography, Lana: the lady, the legend, the truth (1982), Lana Turner, who would become his wife in 1940, wrote, "He never missed a chance to complain that it was beneath him to appear in a Hollywood movie. The crew plotted to drop an arc light on his head."

That was while filming Dancing Co-ed (1939). Shaw's other films included Artie Shaw and his Orchestra (1939), Artie Shaw's Class in Swing (1939), Symphony of Swing (1939) and Second Chorus (1940), and in 1985 he appeared in a two-hour documentary on his life, Time is All You've Got.

But Shaw couldn't stand the falseness and hysteria of show business and in November 1939 he walked away from his career for the first time, disappearing to Mexico for several months. "I wanted to resign from the planet, not just music," he said later. "I got miserable when I became a commodity."

When he married Lana Turner, the head of her studio asked to see Shaw and explained that, since the studio had invested a lot of money in making Turner into a sex symbol, he did not want to see the new wife made pregnant. It was only after leaving the office that the enormity of this suggestion hit Shaw and it wasn't until he had divorced Turner that he found that, during their marriage, the studio had arranged and paid for an abortion.

Then, when artistically at the height of his achievements, he laid down the clarinet in 1955 and never played it again. "I am compulsive," he recalled in 1985.

I sought perfection. I was constantly miserable. I was seeking a constantly receding horizon. So I quit.

It was like cutting off an arm that had gangrene. I had to cut it off to live. I'd be dead if I didn't stop. The better I got, the higher I aimed. People loved what I did, but I had grown past it. I got to the point where I was walking in my own footsteps.

He was born Arthur Arshawsky on New York's East Side in 1910, almost exactly a year after Goodman's birth in Chicago. Shaw, like Goodman, was the son of a poor Jewish tailor. His interest in music was fired when he was 10 and, as far as he knew, no one else in the family was musical. He began learning the alto saxophone two years later and in 1925 joined Johnny Cavallaro's dance band.

Whilst on the road with Cavallaro, he added the clarinet and it soon became his principal instrument. From 1927 until 1929, he worked in Cleveland where he became musical director of an orchestra led by the violinist Austin Wylie. Touring with Irving Aaronson's band in 1929, he heard Jimmy Noone and other jazz stars in Chicago and sat in with the pianist Earl Hines's band and some of the young white players like Jess Stacy and Muggsy Spanier.

Shaw played at more jam sessions when the band reached New York and he decided to stay in the city, quickly finding work in the radio and recording studios. In 1935 he formed his own band for a concert at the Imperial Theatre. It was an unusual line-up consisting of clarinet, a string quartet and three rhythm instruments. This early interest in strings was to blossom through the years and after the concert Shaw added saxophones, brass and a vocalist to make his first regular band.

Although the band recorded for Decca, the public was indifferent and, in March 1937, Shaw reformed it into an orthodox swing band. This is when Shaw's least recognised but prodigious talents came into play as he developed into an instinctive arranger of the band's music. He also spent many hours training the musicians in the brass and reed sections. As a result of his high standards, the Shaw bands always had an unusually disciplined and full sound. He was to add a string section to the band whenever he could and from then on devoted himself to the clarinet, practising eight hours each day.

Most of the stars who grew from Shaw's band learned from him, and over the years some of the big names in his ranks included George Wettling, Buddy Rich, Billy Butterfield, Jack Jenney, Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, George Auld, Johnny Guarnieri, Hot Lips Page, Max Kaminsky, Roy Eldridge, Dodo Marmarosa and Barney Kessel.

In a ground-breaking move in 1938 he hired Billie Holiday to sing with the band on tour. Musically she was a success, as her recording of "Any Old Time" confirmed, but society wasn't ready for a black and white combination and the strain of the abrasive racial discrimination they encountered while touring proved destructive. Holiday left because of it. Shaw was to encounter similar problems when he hired the trumpeter Roy Eldridge for one of his best bands in 1944.

In 1940, on return from self-imposed exile in Mexico, he recorded "Frenesi" with a studio band and strings. This was a colossal hit and forced him to form a new band to tour with. For the first time he included the Gramercy Five, a quintet from within the band that in its various manifestations was to dazzle listeners until the end of his career. In 1940 also he recorded his Concerto for Clarinet, a dazzling display of technical virtuosity spread over two sides of a 12-inch 78 record and forever a source of amazement for clarinet players from all fields.

Another huge hit, fresh-sounding to this day, came in 1941 with "Stardust". "It's the greatest clarinet solo of all time," said de Franco. The record remained a hit on juke boxes for several years. "I wrote a simple sketch," Shaw described it,

and then Lennie Hayton orchestrated it. I would often write out the lead for songs and let others finish it and then give them the credit. I differed from Benny Goodman about that. He'd fire people if they received more applause than him, but I figured that if they are playing well it makes my band sound better. Besides, my name is still up front.

When the United States entered the Second World War in 1942, Shaw broke up the band and volunteered for the US Navy. He formed a service band and was sent with it to the South Pacific where he and it remained, almost constantly under fire, for 18 months. The musicians were so badly rattled that when the band returned home, they were given medical discharges.

Shaw was soon back with a new band, this time including a more modern Gramercy Five. Although he didn't play the music with the big band, Shaw had absorbed the innovations of the new Bebop. But in 1947 he decided on another exit and left band-leading to study classical playing for two years. He appeared in concerts with symphony and chamber orchestras before returning with yet another big band. But he soon tired of this and retired to write his autobiography The Trouble with Cinderella. The book was published to great acclaim in 1952.

It was now that Shaw formed his final band and a contemporary version of the Gramercy Five. Including the pianist Hank Jones and the guitarist Tal Farlow, this was perhaps the most musically effective group that Shaw had led. His own playing was at its most accomplished and many of the recordings that the group made rank as classics. Then, in 1955, he walked away from the music again, this time for good.

A brush with the House Committee on Un-American Activities caused Shaw to leave the US to live in Spain for the next five years. He spent his time on the Costa Brava, his hobbies including astronomy and fishing. He made occasional trips to Rome and Paris, and continued to write, producing a couple of collections of short stories - later published as I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead (1965) and Best of Intentions (1989).

It was on one of the trips to Paris that, now divorced from Kathleen Winsor, he met the film actress Evelyn Keyes, whom he married in Gibraltar in 1957. "He insisted on fixing toilet rolls to unwind from the front and not the back. Every time I change a toilet roll," she remembered years after their divorce, "I think of Artie Shaw."

Returned to living in Connecticut, Shaw became an expert competitive marksman, manufactured guns and opened a rifle range. He formed a film company which produced Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenbrough. He appeared on television game shows and travelled and lectured at Yale University.

When he parted from Keyes, with whom he remained on good terms, he went to live in California in 1973. Shaw spent the rest of the century working on a huge manuscript, "The Education of Albie Snow", a rambling and as yet unseen work that is partly autobiographical and often experimental in its shifts into verse and unpunctuated passages.

In 1983 he was persuaded to reorganise and occasionally conduct his band as it reworked his old music library. The clarinet solos were played by Dick Johnson and the band lasted into the Nineties. In 1992 the clarinettist Bob Wilber persuaded Shaw to visit England, to conduct a concert at the Royal Festival Hall where Wilber, a small jazz group and the Wren Orchestra played classical works and Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet".

Shaw and his mother quarrelled and had no contact for years, but when she died Shaw organised her funeral. At the funeral a raggedy man approached the rabbi as he gave his address. The rabbi brushed him off, but the man persisted. Eventually the rabbi paused and bent down to hear what the man had to say. "This is the deceased's brother," announced the rabbi. "He wishes to sing a lament."

"The minute I heard him," said Shaw, "I knew where my musical talent had come from. His singing was sublime." He welcomed his previously unknown uncle after the service.

A few weeks later Shaw was going through his mother's affairs with her lawyer. They found an invoice. It read "To singing lament at funeral, $400."

"I never spoke to the son of a bitch again," Shaw said.

Steve Voce