[Dixielandjazz] Terry Teachout on Artie Shaw

Norman Vickers nvickers1 at cox.net
Sat Jan 1 19:33:06 PST 2005

To: DJML Listmates
From: Norman Vickers of Pensacola, the city of 14,000 blue roofs.  ( This is
a meterological statement, not a political one, as it refers to the blue
tarpolins as temporary protection for roofs damaged from Hurricane Ivan)

No doubt, you've seen several obituaries by now, on the the recent death of
Artie Shaw. I have appreciated your comments about your observations,
especially those of you who met him at one time or another.

Here is a column by Terry Teachout, written in October 2004.  Teachout, as I
hope all of you know, is
author of recent book on H. L Mencken entitled "Skeptic."  He a columnist
for the Wall Street Journal and also a music critic.  Thought you'd enjoy
reading this.

A personal note, I heard Shaw give one of his now-famous talks at the Bix
Beiderbecke festival in the mid 90s. He first told us that he was a genius.
Gave a rambling talk, some of which I agreed with, about his observations on
music, why he gave up the clarinet.  ( Didn't mention his famous marriages)
When there were questions at the end, he chastized each questioner for not
speaking clearly ( Shaw was getting quite deaf.) Some of these talks have
been published elsewhere, but I can't recall exactly where I read them.

One point Shaw made, that I agree with, was that the audience clapping after
a jazz solo interrupts the first few bars of the next portion of the music.
I, too, find that disturbing and choose not to clap after a solo, but I'm
not a crusader for that point of view.


TT: He's still here  ( fnv:  posted October 2004)

Speaking of Artie Shaw (some of whose best recordings are collected on an
excellent new CD called Centennial Collection), here’s a piece I wrote about
him for the New York Times on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in
2000. I forgot to include it in A Terry Teachout Reader, but I like it
anyway, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.

* * *

H.L. Mencken once suggested that in a well-run universe, everybody would
have two lives, "one for observing and studying the world, and the other for
formulating and setting down his conclusions about it." This is more or less
the way that the clarinetist Artie Shaw, who turns 90 on Tuesday, has
contrived to arrange things. In the first half of his long, spectacularly
eventful life, he played jazz with Bix Beiderbecke and Mozart with Leonard
Bernstein; married Lana Turner and Ava Gardner; made a movie with Fred
Astaire; and was interrogated about his left-wing ties by Joe McCarthy.
Then, at the age of 44, he stopped playing music and started writing
fiction, eventually producing a monstrously long autobiographical novel
called "The Education of Albie Snow."

Though only a single chapter has seen print, Mr. Shaw's magnum opus really
does exist, and presumably will be published sooner or later, in some form
or other. (Robert Altman says he wants to turn it into a movie, with Johnny
Depp in the title role.) Still, it is unlikely that his second career as a
writer will overshadow his previous career as a musician. In part because he
became a pop-culture icon at the age of 28, he has never been properly
acknowledged as a giant of jazz—except by his fellow musicians. Yet his
recordings leave no possible doubt of his immense stature, as both virtuoso
soloist and nonpareil bandleader.

Alas, much of Mr. Shaw's achievement must now be taken on faith, for most of
his records are out of print, and no label has gone to the trouble of
commemorating his 90th birthday. BMG, which owns the 78s he made between
1938 and 1945, has no plans to release a retrospective boxed set, and the
only tribute thus far has been the publication of Vladimir Simosko's Artie
Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography (Scarecrow Press), a dry but
thorough survey of his musical career. Mr. Shaw can hardly be surprised by
this lack of interest in a legendary veteran of the swing era, since he has
spent much of his life decrying the commercialism of the pop-music
industry—even though he also spent the better part of three decades playing
"commercial" music, and profiting handsomely by it.

Mr. Shaw's first big band was an ensemble of unorthodox instrumentation (it
included a string quartet) whose failure inspired him to change musical
directions and organize what he called "the loudest goddamn band in the
world." He then struck it rich in 1938 with a crisp, incisive recording of
Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" that made him a superstar virtually
overnight. For all his oft-expressed contempt of commercialism, he had a
knack for making good music that pleased the public—a knack with which he
would never come to terms—and the "Beguine" band, which featured the
superlative singing of Billie Holiday and Helen Forrest, the fiery drumming
of the 21-year-old Buddy Rich and a saxophone section that played with
breathtaking fluidity and grace, was an incomparable dance band, by turns
lyrical and galvanizingly hot.

Mr. Shaw himself wrote many of the band's lucid, transparent arrangements,
whose simplicity was deliberately intended to appeal to a mass audience, but
which had the paradoxical effect of providing an ideal background for his
richly elaborate improvisations. His intense, saxophone-like tone was
sharply focused but never shrill, even when he was cavorting in the
instrument's highest register, and his blues solos were tinged with an
exotic modal color suggestive of synagogue chant.

A self-made intellectual manqué, he loathed the adoring teenage fans who had
made him rich, telling one reporter they were "a bunch of morons." In 1939,
he walked off a New York bandstand in the middle of a set and never came
back; within a matter of months, though, he 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 Mr. Shaw's
in-house jazz combo, the Gramercy Five. The new group became as popular as
its predecessor, turning out an elegantly poised version of "Star Dust" that
remains to this day one of the best-remembered recordings of Hoagy
Carmichael's most famous song.

In 1941, the "Star Dust" band gave way to a 32-piece orchestra with 15
strings, billed as "Artie Shaw and His Symphonic Swing." Mr. Shaw, who had
been studying with the classical composer David Diamond, now sought to meld
jazz and classical music in a manner reminiscent of the Paul Whiteman band
of the late '20s, using the bluesy trumpeter-vocalist Oran "Hot Lips" Page
in much the same way Whiteman had featured 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 such as "Suite No. 8" in which the string section was
not tacked on as an afterthought but integrated into the ensemble with
deceptive ease.

In 1942, Mr. Shaw broke up his Symphonic Swing, enlisted in the U.S. Navy
and toured the Pacific with a band that performed under fire at Guadalcanal.
Combat fatigue forced him stateside in 1944, and he started a stringless
civilian band featuring the great trumpeter Roy Eldridge and an unusually
diverse library of arrangements that ranged from the Basie-style charts of
Buster Harding to such wryly witty Eddie Sauter compositions as "The Maid
with the Flaccid Air." Though it was known as an "arranger's band," Mr. Shaw
was, as always, firmly in control, and its performances reflected his
lifelong liking for versatility—and accessibility. Woody Herman's
contemporaneous, bop-flavored First Herd was far looser, which may explain
why highbrow critics have always preferred it to Mr. Shaw's postwar band,
despite the latter's undeniably progressive tilt.

Like the First Herd, the Shaw band contained players who were interested in
bebop, including the guitarist Barney Kessel and the pianist Dodo Marmarosa,
and the ever-curious clarinetist began to explore the new style alongside
them in an updated Gramercy Five. Following a hiatus during which he played
only classical music, he returned yet again to the bandstand in 1949, this
time with a full-fledged bop group; by then, he had assimilated the musical
dialect of bebop, and his solos were every bit as contemporary-sounding as
those of his younger sidemen, among them the tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and
Zoot Sims.

The big bands were dying off fast, though, and Mr. Shaw's bop band broke up
after just five months. Thereafter, he shuttled in and out of music, taking
a year off to write The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity
(1952), a self-conscious but compelling memoir in which he catalogued the
destructive effects of what he called "$ucce$$." Two years later, he put
together one last Gramercy Five that teamed him with the guitarist Tal
Farlow and the pianist Hank Jones. Stimulated by their playing, he rose to
new heights of musical sophistication, and it seemed he was finally ready to
give up on "$ucce$$" and settle for being a uniquely individual jazz
soloist. Instead, he quit music in the fall of 1954, and never played
clarinet again. He claimed he had no alternative—giving up the clarinet, he
has said, was like cutting off "a gangrenous right arm...to save your
life"—but he has also never stopped talking about it, suggesting that his
decision may not have been quite as inevitable as he would like to suppose.

At 90, Mr. Shaw is by all accounts the same garrulous, curious, contentious
man who put down his instrument 46 years ago, longing to free himself from
the seductive lures of superstardom but never quite capable of turning his
back on fame. He has a Web site, artieshaw.com, on which is posted a
third-person autobiographical statement so self-aggrandizing as to be
endearing: "Shaw is regarded by many as the finest and most innovative of
all jazz clarinetists, a leader of some of the greatest musical aggregations
ever assembled, and one of the most adventurous and accomplished figures in
American music." You'd have to laugh at such braggadocio, except for one
thing—it's all true.

* * *

A footnote: RCA finally got around to putting out a five-CD Artie Shaw box
set, Self Portrait, in 2001, perhaps in part because I took them to task in
this piece. Whatever the reason, they did a fabulous job, and Self Portrait
is still in print, as well it should be.

In addition, Shaw buffs will want to know about The Artistry of Artie Shaw,
a CD just released by Hep, the British jazz reissue label, which contains
such extreme rarities as the recordings of short classical and
semi-classical pieces by Debussy, Granados, Kabalevsky, Milhaud, Poulenc,
Ravel, Shostakovich, Morton Gould, and Alan Shulman that Shaw made in 1949
with the New Music Quartet and a large string ensemble.

posted by terryteachout @ 12:46 am | Permanent link

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