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 Artie Shaw

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Artie Shaw

Musician, Composer, and Band Leader. He is best remembered as being one of jazz's finest clarinetists and for leading one of the US' most popular big bands in the late 1930s through the early 1940s. Their signature song, a 1938 version of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine", was a wildly successful single and one of the era's defining recordings. Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky to Jewish parents, his father was a dressmaker and photographer who emigrated from Russia and his mother came from Austria. He grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where his natural introversion was deepened by local anti-Semitism. At age 13 he began learning the saxophone and when he was 16, he switched to the clarinet and left home to tour with a band. Returning to New York City, New York, he became a session musician through the early 1930s. From 1925 until 1936, he performed with many bands and orchestras and from 1926 to 1929, he worked in Cleveland, Ohio and established a lasting reputation as music director and arranger for an orchestra led by the violinist Austin Wylie. In 1929 and 1930 he played with Irving Aaronson's Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music, which he would later incorporate in his musical arrangements. He first gained attention with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York City in 1935. During the swing era, his big band was popular with hits like "Stardust," "Back Bay Shuffle," "Moonglow," "Rosalie," and "Frenesi." The show was well-received but forced to dissolve in 1937 because the sound was not commercial. An innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation, his "Interlude in B-flat" was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed Third Stream. In addition to hiring drummer Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated Southern US. However, after recording "Any Old Time" she left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more "mainstream" singer. His band became enormously successful, and his playing was eventually recognized as equal to that of Benny Goodman. His fans dubbed him the "King of the Clarinet but he felt that title rightfully belonged to Benny Goodman, who also played the clarinet" The 1938 "DownBeat" magazine's readers agreed with his evaluation and named Artie Shaw as the "King of Swing." From November 1938 until November 1939, he broadcasted his orchestra on CBS radio from the Blue Room of the New York City's Hotel Lincoln. He took himself seriously as an artist and valued experimental and innovative music rather than generic dance and love songs, despite an extremely successful career that sold more than 100 million records. He fused jazz with classical music by adding strings to his arrangements, experimented with bebop, and formed "chamber jazz" groups that utilized such novel sounds as harpsichords or Afro-Cuban music. At the height of his popularity, he reportedly earned $60,000 per week. In 1940 he fashioned a small group from within the band, naming it Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five after his home telephone exchange. The original Gramercy Five pressed eight records, with their biggest hit being "Summit Ridge Drive." In 1941 he dissolved this band. During World War II he enlisted in the US Navy and later formed a band, which served in the Pacific Theater (just as Glenn Miller's wartime band served in Europe). After 18 months playing for Navy personnel (sometimes as many as four concerts a day in battle zones, including Guadalcanal), he returned to the US physically exhausted and received a medical discharge from the Navy. Following the war, the popularity of big bands declined as crooners and bebop came to dominate the charts. In the late 1940s, Shaw performed classical music at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Throughout his career, he would take sabbaticals from the music business and in 1954, he stopped playing the clarinet, citing his own perfectionism, which, he later said, would have killed him, and spent the rest of the 1950s living in Europe. In 1981, he ended his self-imposed retirement and organized a new Artie Shaw Band with clarinetist Dick Johnson as bandleader and soloist, with himself guest conducted from time to time. He was married eight times, first to Jane Cairns (1932 to 1933, annulled); Margaret Allen (1934 to 1937, divorced); actress Lana Turner (1940, divorced soon afterwards); Betty Kern, the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern (1942 to 1943, divorced); actress Ava Gardner (1945 to 1946, divorced); "Forever Amber" author Kathleen Winsor (1946 to 1948, annulled); actress Doris Dowling (1952 to 1956, divorced); and actress Evelyn Keyes (1957 to 1985, divorced). He had one son, Steven Kern, with Betty Kern, and another son, Jonathan Shaw, with Doris Dowling. Both Lana Turner and Ava Gardner later described him as being extremely emotionally abusive. His controlling nature and incessant verbal abuse in fact drove Turner to have a nervous breakdown, soon after which she divorced him. In the early 1950s he began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution and in 1953, he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his perceived leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Congress, which it considered a communist front. Also during the 1950s, began to pursue a writing career. His autobiography, "The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity," was published in 1952. In the 1960s he turned to semi-autobiographical fiction with "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead: Variation on a Theme" (1965, reprinted in 1997), and "The Best Intentions and Other Stories" (1989). He was a precision marksman, ranking fourth in the United States in 1962, as well as an expert fly fisherman. In his later years, he suffered from diabetes and lived and wrote in the Newbury Park section of Thousand Oaks, California where he died at the age of 94. Currently, through Curtis International Associates, the Artie Shaw Orchestra is still active.

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Patricia K. Bowen
  • Added: 31 Dec 2004
  • Find A Grave Memorial 10195438
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Artie Shaw (23 May 1910–30 Dec 2004), Find A Grave Memorial no. 10195438, citing Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village, Los Angeles County, California, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .