100 Jazz Profiles
1910 - 2004
Clarinettist. Although he started his career as a reed player in the second half of the 1920s, it was not until the mid-1930s that Shaw established himself as a major figure in jazz. Between the launch of his first group in 1936 and his retirement from active playing in 1954, he became recognised as one of the two finest clarinettists in jazz (along with Benny Goodman) and one of the most imaginative and iconoclastic big band leaders of the swing era.
His career was turbulent, and he broke up his groups several times, but he produced some outstanding group performances and a string of examples of his own technically brilliant playing, including some of the most compositionally perfect solos in jazz, such as his reworking of Hoagy Carmichael's Star Dust. His first group featured a string ensemble, rhythm section and his own clarinet, and he augmented this with minimal brass and reeds for his first touring band.
Despite making some exceptional discs (including his Interlude in B flat) this was not commercial, and he re-formed in 1937 with a conventional swing band line-up. This group had his first major hit, Begin the Beguine, but Shaw walked out on the band at the height of its success in 1939. He returned the following year with a major hit record of Frenesi, and once more toured with a big band including strings.
By contrast he led a small group the Gramercy Five, which featured a harpsichord. During this time Shaw's personal life, with several high-profile marriages, was seldom out of the gossip columns. During the war, he led a USA Navy band in the Pacific during 1943, and after being invalided out, re-grouped his own orchestra in 1944, with Roy Eldridge as his star trumpeter. Eldridge was one of a line of African-American musicians whom Shaw had hired, others included Billie Holiday and trumpeter Hot Lips Page.
He continued to lead big bands in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but his last recorded work was with another small group (also called the Gramercy Five) in 1954. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shaw supervised various revivals of his big band, acting as conductor, with Dick Johnson or Bob Wilber playing his former clarinet parts. He became a writer, and has also added his trenchant views to many film documentaries about jazz.
Artie Shaw: The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity (New York, DaCapo, 1992)
The Very Best of Artie Shaw (RCA / BMG 09026 63753-2)
Suggested track: Star Dust
Official Artie Shaw site
With details of books, recordings and the activities of the revived Artie Shaw Orchestra
on radio 3
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