Artie Shaw (born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky; May 23, 1910 – December 30, 2004) was an American clarinetist, composer, bandleader, actor and author of both fiction and non-fiction.
Widely regarded as "one of jazz's finest clarinetists", Shaw led one of the United States' most popular big bands in the late 1930s through the early 1940s. Though he had numerous hit records, he was perhaps best known for his 1938 recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Before the release of "Beguine," Shaw and his fledgling band had languished in relative obscurity for over two years and, after its release, he became a major pop artist within short order. The record eventually became one of the era's defining recordings. Musically restless, Shaw was also an early proponent of what became known much later as Third Stream music, which blended elements of classical and jazz forms and traditions. His music influenced other musicians, such as Monty Norman in England, with the vamp of the James Bond Theme, possibly influenced by 1938's "Nightmare".
Shaw also recorded with small jazz groups drawn from within the ranks of the big bands he led. He served in the US Navy from 1942 to 1944, during which time he led a morale-building band that toured the South Pacific. Following his discharge in 1944, he returned to lead a band through 1945. Following the breakup of that band, he began to focus on other interests and gradually withdrew from the world of being a professional musician and major celebrity, although he remained a force in popular music and jazz before retiring from music completely in 1954.
Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born on May 23, 1910, in New York City, he was the son of Sarah (née Strauss) and Harold "Harry" Arshawsky, a dressmaker and photographer. The family was Jewish; his father was from Russia, his mother from Austria. Shaw grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where his natural introversion was deepened by local antisemitism. Shaw bought a saxophone by working in a grocery store and began learning the saxophone at 13. At 16, he switched to the clarinet and left home to tour with a band.
Returning to New York, he became a session musician through the early 1930s. From 1925 to 1936, Shaw performed with many bands and orchestras; from 1926 to 1929, he worked in Cleveland and established a lasting reputation as music director and arranger for an orchestra led by the violinist Austin Wylie. In 1929 and 1930, he played with Irving Aaronson's Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music, which he would later incorporate in his arrangements. In 1932, Shaw joined the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra and made several recordings with the outfit including "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Fit as a Fiddle".
In 1935, he first gained attention with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York. During the swing era, his big bands were popular with hits like "Begin the Beguine" (1938), "Stardust" (with a trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield), "Back Bay Shuffle", "Moonglow", "Rosalie" and "Frenesi". The show was well received, but was forced to dissolve in 1937 because his band's sound was not commercial. Shaw valued experimental and innovative music rather over dancing and love songs.
He was an innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation; "Interlude in B-flat", where he was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed Third Stream. His incorporation of stringed instruments could be attributed to the influence of the classical composer Igor Stravinsky.
In addition to hiring Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white band leader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated Southern US. However, after recording "Any Old Time", Holiday left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more "mainstream" singer.
Like his main rival, Benny Goodman, and other leaders of big bands, Shaw fashioned a smaller "band within the band" in 1940. He named it Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five after his home telephone exchange. Band pianist Johnny Guarnieri played harpsichord on the quintet recordings, and Al Hendrickson played electric guitar. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. In 1940, the original Gramercy Five cut eight sides, then Shaw dissolved the band in early 1941. The Gramercy Five's biggest hit was "Summit Ridge Drive", one of Shaw's million-selling records. His last prewar band, organized in September 1941, included Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Max Kaminsky, Georgie Auld, Dave Tough, Jack Jenney, Ray Conniff and Guarnieri.
The long series of musical groups Shaw subsequently formed included Lena Horne, Helen Forrest, Mel Tormé, Buddy Rich, Dave Tough, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Dodo Marmarosa, and Ray Conniff. He used the morose "Nightmare", with its Hasidic nuances, as his theme rather than choosing a more accessible song. In a televised interview in the 1970s, Shaw derided the "asinine" songs of Tin Pan Alley that were the lifeblood of popular music and which bands, especially the most popular (such as his own) were compelled to play night after night. In 1994, he told Frank Prial of The New York Times: "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine'".
Throughout his career, Shaw had a habit of forming bands, developing them according to his immediate aspirations, making a quick series of records, and then disbanding. He generally did not stick around long enough to reap his bands' successes through live performances of their recorded hits. Following the breakup of what was already his second band in 1939, he rarely toured at all and, if he did, his personal appearances were usually limited to long-term engagements in a single venue or bookings that did not require much traveling, unlike many bands of the era that traveled great distances doing seemingly endless strings of one-night engagements.