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Artie Shaw Remembered

Clarinet giant and big band leader Artie Shaw was eulogized Sunday after passing away from complications of diabetes at the age of 94 on New Year’s Eve:

    Shaw’s music filled Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park chapel Sunday, inducing a few tapping toes, and the entertainer’s friends delivered tributes before orchestra director Dick Johnson stood at Shaw’s casket and played “I’ll Be Seeing You” on a clarinet.

    “I believe he was the best jazz clarinetist of all time and one of the very few geniuses I’ve rubbed elbows with,” Johnson said.

    ….Comic actor Red Buttons recalled Shaw was married eight times, including actresses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner (news).

    “I asked him why did he marry so many times,” Buttons said. “He said, `Why not?'”

    The mourners roared with laughter and Buttons continued.

    “I met Artie during World War II. We were both in uniform. He was in the Navy and I was a bellhop at the Astoria Hotel,” he said to more laughter before glancing up and saying, “Is God going to punish me for getting laughs at a memorial?”

    ….”Artie, all his days, told it like it was, how he saw it, not how you saw it,” he said. Then Buttons looked at the coffin. “In a way I’m shocked to see this public service for this most private man.” [AP]

E! had a nice bio immediately after Shaw’s death, which largely passed under the radar around here due to the holidays:

    A self-confessed perfectionist, both professionally and personally, Shaw’s band’s recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” topped the charts for six weeks in 1938. His liquid sound made him a rival to the day’s other clarinet virtuoso, Benny Goodman, for the title “King of Swing,” and his group one of the most popular of the Big Band era.

    At the height of his fame Shaw was earning at least $30,000 a week, a huge amount for the Depression years. At a time when white bandleaders refused to work with black performers, he hired vocalist Billie Holiday. Other jazz greats who performed with him over the years included drummer Buddy Rich and singer Mel Torme.

    His other hits, some with his band and some with his quartet, the Gramercy Five, included “Lady Be Good,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “Accent-tchu-ate the Positive,” “Traffic Jam,” “They Say,” “Moonglow,” “Stardust,” “Thanks for Ev’rything,” “Summit Ridge Drive” and “My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue.” His jazz was influenced by his admiration for avant-garde classical composers. His own compositions included “Interlude in B Flat”, a combo of clarinet and strings.

    But in 1954 he stopped playing the clarinet, claiming he could not achieve the level of artistry he desired.

    As he explained to Reuters in a 1985 interview, “I am compulsive. I sought perfection. I was constantly miserable. I was seeking a constantly receding horizon. So I quit.”

    “It was like cutting off an arm that had gangrene. I had to cut it off to live. I’d be dead if I didn’t stop. The better I got, the higher I aimed. People loved what I did, but I had grown past it. I got to the point where I was walking in my own footsteps.”

    By the mid-1980s he had come out of his long self-imposed musical retirement during which he wrote an well received autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella, and collections of short fiction, I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! and The Best of Intentions. He had lived in Spain for a time, farmed, traveled, read vociferously, lectured and been a guest on TV game shows, but in 1981 he again formed a band. It bore his name and performed his music, however, clarinetist Dick Johnson played the solos and led the group. Shaw only occasionally acted as host to conduct its signature number, “Nightmare.”

    His private life appears to have been just that. He was married eight times. Blonde bombshell Turner was his third wife for about six months, gorgeous brunette Gardner, his fifth for about a year. In between he had married Betty Kern, daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern. His sixth spouse was novelist Kathleen Winsor, who wrote the bodice-ripping bestseller Forever Amber; their union lasted about two years.

    Forever was not apt for any of the handsome, volatile, acerbic Shaw’s relationships–the longest of which was his last marriage to the feisty actress and writer Evelyn Keyes, who had played Scarlett O’Hara’s jilted sister Suellen in Gone with the Wind. They were married from 1957 to 1985, but separated for much of that time.

    “I like her very much and she likes me, but we’ve found it about impossible to live together,” Shaw said in a 1973 interview.

    Shaw’s good looks earned him some screen time of his own. He met Turner when they starred together in Dancing Coed and he was featured in another musical, Second Chorus, earning Oscar nominations for writing the score and cowriting the song “Love of My Life.”

    He was born Arthur Arshawsky to an immigrant family struggling to make a living in the clothing industry in New York. He started working as a professional musician in his teens, moving from saxophone to clarinet, and by his 20s was a well paid member of the CBS radio orchestra.

    During World War II he enlisted in the Navy, but spent most of the conflict performing shows for the troops. Vocal in his liberalism, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 and admitted he had attended a couple of Communist meetings because of his interest in social justice and world peace, but had never joined the party or donated any money to it.

    “I hate to admit that I was a dupe, but I guess I was,” he said. The notoriously harsh committee treated him gently, advising him only to go out and use his talent “to fight for true Americanism.”

    But Shaw quit playing the clarinet very shortly afterwards. He was never comfortable with fame, disliked signing autographs, hated being constantly asked to reprise “Begin the Beguine,” and ran afoul of his fans by calling jitterbuggers “morons.”

    “I could never understand why people wanted to dance to my music,” he once said. “I made it good enough to listen to.”

Richard Harrington added some interesting notes as well in the Washington Post:

    For more than a year now, the Selmer clarinet Artie Shaw played on his classic 1938 recording of “Begin the Beguine” has been preserved in the National Museum of American History, a gift made when Shaw was honored with the James Smithson Bicentennial medal for his lifetime achievement and contributions to American culture and music. Earlier this year the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Shaw a Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was due to receive an NEA Jazz Masters Award next week.

    One hopes Artie Shaw, who died Thursday at 94, took some pleasure in such recognition because his life and career, full of innovation and acclaim, both popular and critical, always seemed a curious confluence of opposites underscored by serial rejection of opportunities

    ….Shaw also hated the entertainment industry (he groused that “popular music in America is 10 percent art and 90 percent business”) and didn’t hide his disdain for fans. At the height of his popularity in 1939, Shaw griped to the New York Post that “jitterbugs are morons [and] autograph hunters won’t give you a chance to breathe.” When the tobacco company Old Gold took offense and dropped its sponsorship of Shaw’s live radio show, he literally walked off the bandstand and moved to Mexico. The New York Times expressed admiration for “the Shakespearean sweep of [Shaw’s] exodus” and the “beautiful incautious burning of all his bridges behind him.”

    But while the erudite Shaw probably appreciated the literary allusion, he never really burned all of his bridges. While in Mexico he heard a mariachi tune called “Frenesi.” When he returned to Los Angeles a few months later, he recorded it with a big band augmented with strings, woodwinds and French horns. “Frenesi” became a huge hit and he resumed touring.

    ….Shaw’s career skyrocketed in 1938 when he recorded “Begin the Beguine,” until then, a minor Cole Porter song. Shaw’s arranger, Jerry Gray, altered the original, languidly exotic, beguine rhythm to a modified 4/4 that proved even more lilting and romantic. Its huge success made Shaw an immediate rival to the King of Swing, Goodman, as well as Miller, Dorsey and other stars of the swing era, though Shaw proved a reluctant star, wary of celebrity long before he, ironically, began marrying movie stars.

    For the next decade and a half, he would put together scintillating big bands and adventurous smaller ensembles, notably the Gramercy Five, and have huge hits with lush orchestral versions of “Moonglow” and particularly “Star Dust.” Around his 90th birthday, Shaw told Sam Litzinger of CBS Radio that “if I had to say something was perfect musically, the solo I did on ‘Star Dust’ is as close to being perfect as I would have wanted.” It was a rare admission of contentment.

And then there is the truly dark side as discussed by Joyce Wadler in the NY Times:

    Mr. Shaw, who died late last month, could be charming, [publisher and friend of Shaw’s Lyle] Stuart said, but he was not an easy man. He said Mr. Shaw was self-absorbed and brutally frank; he was estranged from his two sons.

    His son STEVE KERN was the product of Mr. Shaw’s 1941 marriage to ELIZABETH KERN, the daughter of JEROME KERN. His 1952 marriage to the actress DORIS DOWLING produced JONATHAN SHAW. Once, Mr. Stuart said, Steve, who had not seen his father in several years, came to see him at his office. When Mr. Shaw abruptly asked what he wanted, his son said he was a musician and wanted to play for his father. Mr. Shaw reportedly told his son he should seek another profession.

    Steve Kern could not be reached. KAY PICK, a longtime friend of Mr. Shaw’s, told us “no one knows where Steve is.” She also said Steve and his father had not talked in years.

    We were, however, able to speak with Jonathan Shaw, who is 52 and lives in Rio de Janeiro. A painter who for several years ran a tattoo parlor on St. Marks Place, and who said he was a recovering alcoholic, he has written a screenplay about his relationship with his father and has just completed the first draft of book on the same subject.

    “My father was a deeply miserable human being,” Jonathan Shaw said in a telephone conversation yesterday. “That’s the side of him that most people who haven’t been closely associated with him don’t get to see. He was a genius, and he was also a very difficult man.”

    Where was his brother Steve?

    “God only knows,” Jonathan Shaw said, adding that he had written a long letter and sent a copy of his manuscript to a post office box address, but had never heard back.

    “According to Artie’s version,” he went on, “when my brother first went to visit him, my father said, ‘What do you want? You’re nothing but a biological happenstance to me.’ He had said the same thing to me. I just made it difficult for him to dodge me.”

    Jonathan Shaw was estranged from his father for most of his life, he told us. Then, about two years ago, he made contact and spent a year with him. When Jonathan Shaw started having a relationship with his own son, he said, his father cut him off.

    “I got to know him very well and we had some great times together,” Jonathan Shaw said, “but bottom line is that he was absolutely unable to maintain a relationship. He was abusive, condescending, mean-spirited. I felt it was to my advantage to maintain the relationship because it was in many ways cathartic, but no one with any self-respect will put up with that kind of abuse.”

    So he was not with his father when he died? “No,” Mr. Shaw said. “He died alone and miserable, as he chose to do.”

Such a miserable but magnetic person might end up married eight times, but I can’t comprehend the lack of attachment to his own children – that’s simply a personality defect.

And yet, let’s reverse it one more time and end with the music – Ben Ratliff writes:

    In his life he did many things: created robust Americana with big-band hits like “Begin the Beguine” and “Frenesi”; experimented with pianoless jazz as early as 1936; legitimized himself over and over again by playing classical repertory; wrote about his own work with a kind of Olympian insecurity; married Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. But the final recordings of his Gramercy Five sextet, from 1954, are especially worth seeking out, whatever trouble it causes you. (A selection of 15 are included on “Self Portrait,” the five-disc retrospective that Shaw himself conceived in 2001; if copies still exist, search for “The Last Recordings: Rare and Unreleased,” an out-of-print two-CD set, on the Musicmasters label.) Including Hank Jones on piano, Tal Farlow on guitar and Tommy Potter on bass, they are careful, clear, probing works of group effort, those magic confluences of talent and risk that are supposed to happen in jazz all the time, but don’t, really. Two tracks in particular, “Yesterdays” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” played quietly, are works of supreme insight, as much Hank Jones’s perfect moments as Shaw’s. Only someone who had made art at this level could dismiss jazz after 1954, as Shaw once did, as “esoteric and hate-filled.”

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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