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100 Years Of Jazz Clarinetist Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw prepares for a concert in London in 1951.
John Pratt/Stringer/Hulton Archive
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Artie Shaw prepares for a concert in London in 1951.

On the upcoming 100th anniversary of Artie Shaw's birth, Fresh Air remembers one of jazz's greatest clarinetists and big-band leaders with excerpts from a 1985 interview.

The legendary jazz bandleader began his career playing with dance bands when he was still a teenager. Growing contemptuous of the bands' crowd-pleasing antics and trite music, he organized his own big band in 1938. Shaw rejected many of the pop tunes that had become dance-band staples and instead created his repertoire from originals and songs by composers such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

In the 1930s and '40s, the Artie Shaw Orchestra ranked with the Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller bands in terms of popularity. In 1938, at its first recording session, the band made one of Shaw's most popular recordings, a song by Cole Porter called "Begin the Beguine."

Shaw said that he wasn't quite sure why "Begin the Beguine," from Porter's flop musical Jubilee, achieved the lasting popularity that it did.

"I've played it probably thousands of times," Shaw told Terry Gross in a 1985 interview. "It got to the point where -- it's fine to have a hit record, it pays rent -- but it can drive you crazy, like an actor playing the same part. You know, a lot of actors don't mind that, but it can drive you nuts. And I got tired of that. I don't like being stereotyped. So I made maybe 500 records -- why 'Begin the Beguine'? All right, it's a good piece, a good arrangement. But my god, I don't want to be characterized as only 'Begin the Beguine.' You'd think it was all I ever did."

Shaw's early huge success also brought unexpected torments. He temporarily left music altogether in 1949, frustrated with a performing career that he figured depended on "90 percent business and 10 percent art."

He made one of his returns to music in 1953, to lead a small group called the Gramercy Five, which featured the unusual combination of clarinet, harpsichord, electric guitar, bass and drums. Shaw disbanded the group after a year, began a 30-year retirement from music and permanently gave up playing clarinet.

After writing two books and becoming a film producer, Shaw once again returned to music in 1980 to organize a new big band. He chose Dick Johnson to play the solo clarinet parts and front the band. The new group played some of the Shaw Band's most popular arrangements, including "Black Bay Shuffle," "Stardust" and, of course, "Begin the Beguine."

Artie Shaw died on Dec. 30, 2004. He was 94.

Interview Highlights

On Picking 'Begin The Beguine' To Record

"I happened to get to the [Jubilee] theater on Friday and the show closed Saturday. And I heard that tune, and it was done in a kind of Latin beat, and I liked the melody. It was a hell of a good song. It still is. And [it was a] very big departure from most popular songs of those days, which were 8-8 bridge or 8-8 bridge and 8-8 or 1-2 1-2. So I heard the tune and I came back and I was looking for an identity for the band. And we were looking for good songs from sophisticated songwriters, so I said to Jerry Gray, 'Let's do "Begin the Beguine." '"

On Quitting The Music Business

"I really quit the big-band business in 1949. That was the last time I stood in front of a big band. I had a really great band in 1949 -- one of the finest bands I've ever led. The musicians, man for man, the arrangements, everything. I had the best arrangers in the world writing for me. And everybody liked it but the people, as the gag goes. The audience couldn't understand what we were doing. We were totally out of their comprehension entirely, and of course, I knew that but I hoped that since I was going to have to stand in front of a band anyway, I might as well have one that wouldn't bore me to tears. Well, it so happened that my musical sensibilities had evolved to a point at that time where in order to please myself, without realizing it, I was not only displeasing but antagonizing my audiences, who wanted me to keep going back and playing standard brands. So in '49, I broke that band up. And I never was going to come back again. Then, in '54, I got into some financial trouble, and I needed some money. So I put together the Gramercy Five, figuring at least I could play for smaller audiences who would maybe not be more discriminating, but they would certainly allow more to happen -- jazz clubs. And I did that. But I found that the more I did it, more and more people thought this was music to converse by. You get into a nightclub; people come in and they get fractured out of their skulls and they start shouting over the music. So then we have to play louder to get over them, and then they get louder to be heard and it's an endless competition. So I got tired of it. You're in business to play music, not to fight."

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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