[Dixielandjazz] Insights on Artie Shaw

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu May 6 18:38:39 PDT 2010

Some little known information about Artie Shaw, in his own words.  
These excerpts from his interview for the Ken Burns Jazz program a  
decade or so ago. They date from 1998. Interesting take on how being  
surrounded by nice lights and pretty girls influenced him to become a  
jazz musician. Worked for him, as he was married to 8 beautiful women.  

When you were growing up and you first heard jazz, what was it in the  
music that appealed to you?

I wish I could answer that question directly, but it was nothing to do  
with the music. It had to do with the glamour, so to speak. I was  
living in way I didn't care for. I lived in a sort of, not ghetto, but  
not happy with where I lived. My father'd left home and I didn't like  
my life very much. I didn't like school, I didn't like anything. So it  
was a choice between getting a machine gun or an instrument. Luckily I  
found instrument. I heard a guy play, and he was surrounded by nice  
lights and pretty girls and there, it was interesting to me. I  
thought, "This is the way I'd like to go." So he played a saxophone,  
so I got a saxophone. I went to work and I bought a saxophone for  
forty, forty bucks. It was a C-melody. And to my chagrin, after I  
learned to play a little bit, I could play a couple of tunes and I won  
amateur night contests, I found that you had to play an E-flat alto.  
So I played the same tunes with the same fingering and I found that I  
was a third higher, I didn't know what a third was but I was a minor  
third higher than the piano. We started playing, she had the sheet  
music, the people in the pit. And I found out I played a different  
key. So if you're playing the key of C, I would'a had a play, you  
know, I'd a played key of A, and that made a lot of sharps and stuff,  
oh, I can't go through that again, I can't learn that whole thing. I  
was about to give up at that point. But then I thought, no, I was  
stubborn. So I decided I would learn to play the alto. Then I got  
fairly good and I got a job. But it had nothing to do with music.

OK. Let me ask you about Benny Goodman. What was his gift?

Oh, Benny, Benny Goodman and I. We worked together quite a while in  
radio. I was the lead alto section, he had a sound like a buzzsaw on  
an alto. And so, you know, we worked together. He was a weird guy, he  
didn't know very much except that, that what he knew. And he was  
always saying, "Come, on, let's have a smoke, Pops," and I'd say, and  
I'd be reading. And he would say, "Come on." I talked to his brother,  
Freddie, who ran my band one time, and I said, "Freddie, you grew up  
with that family. There was first Harry, then Benny, then you, then  
Erving, and Gene." He said, "Right." I said, "What do you, what was  
Benny like growing up?" He said, "Stupid." I said, "Oh, come on. He  
couldn't have been totally stupid, he's, he, look what he did with a  
horn." 'Cause he was a superb technician. And Fred said, "That's what  
he did, he did nothin' else." It's like, he's been likened to, not  
exactly idiot savant, but something like that. It's what he knew.  
There was nothing else. He once said to me, "This thing will never let  
you down." Which was a strange thing to say about a piece of wood with  
some keys on it. I didn't think of it as holding you up. But that's  
what he saw in the clarinet. And I think it was his life. He focused  
on that and he did it extremely well. But his problem was he had a  
limited vocabulary in music. He knew the basic four chords. And after  
that, he had problem. Altered chords were something beyond his  
perception. If you listen to his playing, it's superb but it's  
limited. And I think it's one the reasons the modern guys have given  
up on him, they don't listen to him, 'cause he's doing the same thing  
over and over and over.

Steve Barbone

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