The great jazz clarinetist, bandleader, composer and arranger was a virtuosic musician and avid reader. He reached the peak of his popularity in 1938 with the release of his arrangement of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine", and he became very rich and famous while still a young man. He could swing with the best of them and was a restless experimenter with form and style; his music blurred the line between improvisation and composition. But he was never happy with his popularity and quit the music business in disgust many times. This handsome but upredictable man has been married eight times - ex-wives include several Hollywood screen goddesses - and has rarely performed publicly since 1954.
Arthur Arshawsky was born to poor Jewish immigrant parents in 1910; the family settled in New Haven, Connecticut when he was very young. In whitebread New England he was teased for his last name, so he anglicized it to "Shaw" in order to fit in. He was a shy child who retreated into books and later music, playing first the saxophone, then the clarinet, both of which he taught himself to play. He dropped out of high school at 15 and, horn in hand, went to seek his fortune in the wide world of American music.
He toured for a year with Johnny Cavallaro, first as an alto saxophonist, but after a year he switched to clarinet. In 1926 he settled in Cleveland, where he landed a job with Austin Wylie, a top bandleader, and though he was only 16 he became music director and arranger for the band. During this period became entranced with the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong and travelled to Chicago to hear the great Satchmo and his Hot Five play at the legendary Savoy Ballroom.
In 1929, still a teenager, he left Wylie's band and moved to Hollywood to join the band of Irving Aaronson. Back in Chicago with Aaronson, Shaw heard for the first time the music of avant garde symphony composer like Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók, and Ravel, and became enamoured of this new musical world. In 1930 Aaronson's band went to New York, where Shaw decided to stay; within a year he became a top session radio and recording musician, earning lots of money. But by 1933 he had become disgusted with hearing his music used to sell consumer goods, and quit the music business for the first time, retiring to a bucolic farm in Pennsylvania. He chopped wood for a living and tried to make a living as a writer - he wanted to write a novel about a character based on Bix Beiderbecke - but after a year realized he couldn't write as he wished, so he went back to school in New York, working as a musician to support himself.
In 1936 Shaw made his first appearance as a bandleader. It was at a big swing show which featured headliners like Tommy Dorsey. Shaw's band was to fill a three-minute interval between bands, and Shaw composed a piece which he called (unimaginatively) "Interlude in B-Flat". His octet had a very unusual make-up for the time: a string quartet, a rhythm section but no piano, and himself on clarinet. To their amazement, the audience went wild for the tune, and when they were called out for an encore, all they could do was play it again, for they didn't have anything else prepared.
After that big hit, though, Shaw's unusual arrangements didn't go over so well, and he was forced to disband the group and put together a more conventional swing band in 1937. Their smash hit, "Begin the Beguine", established Shaw as a popular star and rival to that other great Jewish swing clarinetist, Benny Goodman. And like Goodman, Shaw was a strong supporter of racial integration; the incomparable Billie Holliday sang with him for a time, the first time a black vocalist joined a white band. But Shaw found his stardom onerous, and retired out of the limelight to Mexico in 1939.
It seems that he couldn't stay away, though. In 1939 he appeared in the Hollywood film "Dancing Co-Ed" and in 1940 in "Second Chorus" (for which he received an Oscar nomination). Also in 1940 he recorded his second big hit, "Frenesi" with a studio orchestra, after which he toured with a band which included a string section. From within this group he organized the Gramercy Five and recorded his composition "Summit Ridge Drive", but again he dissolved the group, moving to New York and taking up session work and the study of orchestration. The Gramercy Five was to have several short-lived incarnations over the next few years.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour Shaw joined the navy, but he wasn't allowed to fight, instead being asked to form a service band which toured the Pacific theatre over the next year and a half, playing in at bases and on aircraft carriers and battleships. Eventually, emotionally and physically exhausted, he had a breakdown and was given a discharge from the navy.
He took up recording and touring again and began to study what he called "long form" (non-jazz and classical) music; he appeared with several top symphonies and received critical acclaim for his live and recorded performances. His recording of Nicolai Berezowski difficult "Concerto for Clarinet" is an exemplary showcase of his talent and virtuosity.
In 1951 Shaw quit the music business again, moving to a dairy farm in upstate New York, where he wrote the semi-autiobiographical novel "The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity". Seemingly inevitably, he came back to music, touring and recording with big bands, small combos, and a symphony. But he packed up his clarinet for the last time in 1954, leaving the US to a gorgeous house he helped design in Spain. This perpetually restless man returned to the US in 1960, publishing a book consisting of three novellas in 1964, entitled "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!" and a volume of short fiction, "The Best of Intentions and other Stories" in 1989. He finally settled in southern California, and though he no longer performs, he give lectures and is often interviewed for documentaries, including the one about him I saw last night, "Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got", which received an Academy Award in 1986. He has remained an avid reader and has a huge library of thousands of volumes; he has two honorary doctorates from American universities.
Artie Shaw's former wives include actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Evelyn Keyes. I believe he has had several children, but I'm unable to confirm how many.
Shaw died on December 30, 2004 after a lengthy illness.