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."
Three of the best bandleaders of the period were clarinetists—Shaw, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman—and it seems to me that's the core sound of the era, so seductive, so insinuating. Artie, naturally, had no time for that kind of talk. According to him, the executives liked the clarinet because, in those days of primitive recording, its higher pitch made it cut through the band more clearly than the sax. Whatever. Digitally remastered and cleaned up, the arrangements still sound good. On his smash 1940 recording of "Star Dust," Shaw's solo manages, in just sixteen marvelous bars, to sum up the broad legato sweep of Hoagy Carmichael's tune and yet get giddily away from it in those lovely triplets. There's so much going on in those early hits—joyous, explosive vamps that for many listeners became part of the song. You can find later recordings of "'Swonderful" and "My Blue Heaven" that aren't performances of the numbers so much as of the Shaw band's arrangements of them.
As much as he reviled the music biz, he had little time for the pomposity of post—big-band jazz. "It doesn't have to sound like broken crockery to be jazz," he sighed. "It's solemn rather than serious. I told Clint Eastwood that Dirty Harry was the closest to art he ever got. That picture's America as it really is. Whereas a picture like Bird, which was meant to be a serious thing, was solemn and boring. If you're going to pick an artist who's at odds with his time, you don't pick Charlie Parker. He was worshipped in his lifetime. He just screwed up."
Shaw went into music just to make enough money to finish his education. He sold 100 million records and found out it wasn't about the money. For most of its practitioners, the point of jazz is that it's not fixed, it's never the same, it's improvisational. For Shaw, that's what made music frustrating. "The trouble with composing is that when it's done, it doesn't exist. It's just notes on a piece of paper. Until it's performed. And each performer will stick his own thumbprint on it and change it. Whereas in a book there it is, you can't change it. If you read Thomas Mann, you're reading Thomas Mann. Nobody improvises around his sentences. The two most honest and pure media are painting and literature. Van Gogh's Starry Night remains the same wherever you hang it. You can achieve your perfection. In music, you can only approximate it."
So he gave up the clarinet, and became a novelist, and a dairy farmer, and a film producer, and the fourth-ranked precision rifleman in America. A decade back he made his only visit to Britain, for a one-night stand conducting Prokofiev, Mozart, and some of his old hits at the Royal Festival Hall. He'd been a hero to a colleague of mine for decades, and was supposed to be interviewed by him for the BBC. But my friend fell ill, and I got the call to come in at the last minute. Listening from his sickbed, my pal scribbled me a note saying he'd been "horrified" by Shaw, but I loved that interview. Cole Porter said of the Duchess of Windsor's conversational style that "she always returned the ball." Shaw couldn't wait that long. He leaned over your side of the net and whacked it down your throat while you were still serving. I mentioned his version of "These Foolish Things" because it was co-written by a BBC producer, Eric Maschwitz. "So what?" snapped Shaw. "The song doesn't mean anything. What I did had nothing to do with the tune. The last eleven, twelve bars I did that cadenza—that's as close to perfection as I'll ever get." It was one of his last records. In 1954 he put his clarinet away, never got it out again, and never wanted to. "I did all you can do with a clarinet. Any more would have been less."
As for Artie's fellow bandleaders, the sound may not have "gone away," but a lot of the business did, and Dorsey and Goodman found themselves like most celebrities, clinging to a moment as it recedes into the past. When Shaw decided to pack it in, Duke Ellington told him, "Man, you got more guts than any of us."
"I can say truthfully what very few people can say—that I did something better than anyone else in the world." And he did: he was the best clarinetist, the one with the fullest tone and the slyest shadings. And then he stopped, and did other things, and outlived every other bandleader. "My life turned out the best, too."
To his "dimwit" wives, he was a deranged obsessive. To his estranged sons, he was a miserable, lonely man. But he was chasing different priorities. "The Mozart Clarinet Concerto, we know that's a good piece of work. Here it is a couple hundred years later. Here's some of my work fifty years later. I would say if a piece of popular music lasts fifty years, it's got a good shot at what we laughingly call immortality. We're aiming to transcend this short lifetime. You hope to put a footprint where it will last a little while."
He certainly left his mark on Evelyn Keyes. If he went into a bathroom and saw the toilet roll hung up to unwind from the back rather than the front, it drove him nuts. Years after their divorce she said, "Every time I change a toilet roll, I think of Artie Shaw."