Artie Shaw was the last of the big bandleaders of the Swing Era. We think of them as musicians now, and a few of them—very few, according to Shaw—were great artists. But for anyone under a certain age it's hard to comprehend the scale of their celebrity—instrumentalists in tuxes fronting orchestras, and yet they were as big as the biggest movie stars. Imagine Britney if she could play a clarinet. Brilliantly.
On the eve of World War II, Time reported that to Germans America meant "skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw." And Shaw lived more like a movie star than Gable did. In the ranks of legendary heterosexuals he's rivaled only by Sinatra when it comes to the number of A-list Hollywood babes he got to see in non-Hays Code situations. He was engaged to Betty Grable when he ran off with Lana Turner. He married Ava Gardner and had an affair with Rita Hayworth. Among his eight wives were Evelyn Keyes, who played Mrs. Jolson in The Jolson Story, and Kathleen Winsor, the best-selling naughty novelist (Forever Amber), and Betty Kern, daughter of Jerome.
Most fans of P. G. Wodehouse regard his literary landscape as a timeless playground sealed off from reality. "Mr Wodehouse's world can never stale," wrote Evelyn Waugh. "He has made a world for us to live in and delight in." But Artie Shaw loomed so large at the height of his fame that he has the distinction of being one of the few real, live, flesh-and-blood contemporaries to invade the Wodehouse canon. In The Mating Season a Hollywood starlet recounts to Bertie Wooster her encounter with an elderly English spinster who turned out to be something of a movie fan.
"She knows exactly how many times everybody's been divorced and why, how much every picture for the last twenty years has grossed, and how many Warner brothers there are. She even knows how many times Artie Shaw has been married, which I'll bet he couldn't tell you himself. She asked if I had ever married Artie Shaw, and when I said no, seemed to think I was pulling her leg or must have done it without noticing. I tried to explain that when a girl goes to Hollywood she doesn't
haveto marry Artie Shaw, it's optional, but I don't think I convinced her."
When he stopped marrying, he started lecturing on it at colleges: "Consecutive Monogamy & Ideal Divorce," by an "ex-husband of love goddesses." "These love goddesses are not what they seem, especially if you're married to one," he explained. "They all think they want a traditional marriage, but they aren't made for that sort of thing. Somebody's got to get the coffee in the morning, and an Ava Gardner is not going to do that. So you get up and get it, and then you find you're doing everything. And why? Because she's the love goddess, and that's all she has to be." He had children with a couple of 'em, but didn't care much for them either. "I didn't get along with the mothers," he said. "So why should I get along with the kids?"
Still, celebrity broads were a rare compensation in a world where everything else was a pain in the neck. He was a swing bandleader, but he hated the word "swing," and he was a jazz musician, but he hated the word "jazz." He resented singers, and despised dancers, and loathed fans; the audience was a bunch of "morons," and the musicians were "prima donnas," and the ones who weren't were hacks who did that cheesy synchronized swaying with the saxes and the trombones that the morons were dumb enough to go crazy for. Glenn Miller? "It would have been better if he'd lived and his music had died." Well, okay, lots of jazz guys have a problem with Miller; how about Benny Goodman? "Musically, he had a limited vocabulary," sniffed Shaw.
Gene Lees has described the big bands of the late thirties and early forties as the sound "that will not go away." For Shaw—restless and obsessive—that was the problem. So he went away instead. He started quitting the music business "permanently" a few months after his first hit, and kept on quitting it. But every time he came back, the fans were still there, demanding "Star Dust" and "Frenesi." He found out it was one thing to "Begin the Beguine," quite another to try and stop it. He told me, "Every time someone comes up to me and says, 'Oh, Mr. Shaw, I love "Begin the Beguine,"' I want to vomit."
"Sorry," I said, "but I do love 'Begin the Beguine.'"
"Well, then, you make me want to vomit," he replied. "I did 'Beguine.' It's over. If you want it, get the record. People say, 'Why did you give up music?' I say, 'Have you got every record I ever made?' They say, 'Well, no.' Well, get 'em all and then come back and complain."
He made "Beguine" a hit, all 108 bars of it—the longest standard in the standard repertoire, thanks to Shaw. Cole Porter wrote it as a piece of faux exotica—"Down by the shore an orchestra's playing / And even the palms seem to be swaying"—but Shaw threw out the lyric and made the tune jump. It may have made him vomit, but people love that record because, two thirds of a century on, the double thwack of those opening bars is as wild and exciting and unmistakable as anything in American music. It's nothing to do with Porter, just a little figure Shaw and his arranger Jerry Gray cooked up, and then his clarinet comes in riding the rhythm section. You don't have to do it like that, you can play it a thousand different ways, but Shaw's recording opened the way for all the others. Cole Porter understood. On being introduced to the bandleader, he said, "Happy to meet my collaborator."