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Artie Shaw

Aug 2, 2014

Artie Shaw
Credit MTV

Sunday Night Jazz Showcase

Program 30 (August 3 at 11pm)

One of jazz's finest clarinetists, Artie Shaw was also an accomplished bandleader, leading five orchestras and combos, all of them distinctive and memorable.

After growing up in New Haven, CT, and moving to New York, Shaw became a close associate of Willie Smith at jam sessions, and by 1931 was a busy studio musician. A major turning point occurred when he performed at an all-star big band concert at the Imperial Theatre in May 1936, surprising the audience by performing with a string quartet and a rhythm section. He used a similar concept in putting together his first orchestra, adding a Dixieland-type front line and a vocalist while retaining the strings.

The surprise success of his 1938 recording of "Begin the Beguine" made the clarinetist into a superstar and his orchestra, into one of the most popular in the world. Billie Holiday was with the band for a few months, although only one recording ("Any Old Time") resulted.

Shaw's third orchestra, who had a string section and such star soloists as trumpeter Billy Butterfield and pianist Johnny Guarnieri, was one of his finest. The Gramercy Five, a small group formed out of the band scored with the million-selling "Summit Ridge Drive."

After Pearl Harbor, Shaw enlisted and led a Navy band before getting a medical discharge in February 1944. Later in the year, his new orchestra featured Roy Eldridge, Dodo Marmarosa, and Barney Kessel, and found Shaw's own style becoming quite modern. But, with the end of the swing era, Shaw again broke up his band in early 1946 and was semi-retired for several years, playing classical music as much as jazz.

His last attempt at a big band was a short-lived one who lasted for a few months in 1949 and included Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. After a few years of limited musical activity, Shaw returned one last time, recording extensively with a version of the Gramercy Five that featured Tal Farlow or Joe Puma on guitar along with Hank Jones. In 1955, Artie Shaw permanently gave up the clarinet to pursue his dreams of being a writer. 

Story provided by Allmusic