Artie Shaw was one of the most enigmatic, daring and adventurous bandleaders of the swing-era. An intellectual, he hated public life and loathed the music industry. Over the course of his short career he formed ten orchestras, disbanding most of them after only a few months. He also married eight times, his wives including movie stars Ava Gardner and Lana Turner.
Born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City and raised in Connecticut, Shaw took up the saxophone at an early age and began playing professionally when he was only 14. At age 15 he left home for a promised band job in Kentucky. When the position never materialized, he was forced to play with traveling orchestras in order to get home. He then switched to the clarinet at age 16 and went to Cleveland, where he spent three years playing in local groups, including that of Austin Wylie.
In 1929, Shaw joined Irving Aaronson’s Commanders. While traveling the country with the band, he discovered the works of contemporary avant-garde classical composers whose influence would later surface in his own music. When the Commanders arrived for a gig in New York, Shaw decided to remain. There he freelanced with many of the top artists of the day, including Vincent Lopez, Red Nichols, and Teddy Wilson. He also briefly spent time with Fred Rich’s orchestra and toured with Roger Wolfe Kahn.
In 1934, Shaw became disillusioned with the music industry and quit for the first of what would be many times. He bought a farm in Pennsylvania and tried his hand at being a writer. He soon returned to New York though and took up studio work again. He was one of the most successful studio musicians in the city when in 1935 he was asked by night club owner Joe Helbock to assemble a group to perform during intermissions at a swing concert held by the Imperial Theater. He put together an unusual outfit consisting of a string quartet, a rhythm section minus piano, and his clarinet. The group was a big hit at the concert, which was attended by radio actress and singer Peg LaCentra. She made it known to Shaw that if he ever assembled a working band and needed a vocalist, she’d be interested. Shaw’s band also impressed Tommy Rockwell, head of the Rockwell-O’Keefe booking agency, which was looking for an orchestra to compete against MCA’s Benny Goodman. He kept pestering Shaw to form a permanent group, and finally in the summer of 1936, Shaw did so. He took LaCentra up on her offer, and the band soon opened at the Lexington Hotel in New York.
Like in his temporary group, Shaw’s first orchestra, called Artie Shaw and His New Music, featured a string quartet. To that end, he brought in arranger Jerry Gray, who played violin. Both Shaw and Gray were from Boston, which was also La Centra’s hometown. Male vocals were supplied by saxophonist Tony Pastor. Unfortunately, Shaw’s New Music, though loved by critics and music aficionados, failed to catch on with the public, and in early 1937 he scrapped the band and formed a new more standard swing group. Gray remained for a while as arranger, though he no longer played in the orchestra, but finally returned to Boston. LaCentra and Pastor also both remained, but when Shaw decided to shift home base to Boston as well, LaCentra stayed in New York. The new outfit was a huge success, featuring such musicians as Georgie Auld and Buddy Rich.
Shaw eventually ended up back in New York, where he hired Billie Holiday as his vocalist in March 1938. Holiday was already a big star at that time and had just left Count Basie’s band. While her joining was a promotional win for Shaw, Holiday’s time in the band was problematic for many reasons. While she wasn’t the first black singer with a white band, she was among the very few, and Shaw was forced to hire a white female singer as well to meet some contractual obligations. Holiday was also signed to the Brunswick label, who refused to let her record on Bluebird with Shaw. Holiday promised Shaw that when her contract with Brunswick ran out, she wouldn’t re-sign, but she did so anyway, but without telling Shaw. When Shaw cut his first and, what would be only, record with Holiday on Bluebird, “Any Old Time,” Brunswick, as Shaw put it, “squawked,” and all unsold discs had to be recalled and no new ones could be made. Shaw hired a then unknown Helen Forrest to solve both problems. Holiday became increasingly unhappy working for Shaw however. She eventually had enough of both him and band work, and she left in November.
In September 1938, Shaw collapsed on stage due to exhaustion. He was also absent from the band in the summer of 1939 due to illness. Upon his return to good health, he announced he was quitting the business again but was talked out of it by Gray and Pastor. He didn’t last long however. He left in November and subsequently moved to Mexico, though not before settling a lawsuit brought by his manager, Eli Oberstein, for services rendered. Auld took over band, turning it into a cooperative unit, with Gray as arranger. Pastor, however, decided to form his own unit instead. Forrest left for Goodman, with Goodman vocalist Kay Foster joining Auld in what many in the industry thought was a backroom deal. Pastor attempted to sign Holiday.
1940s and War Years
Shaw returned to the United States in January 1940 and formed a 32-piece studio orchestra which recorded several songs, including his famous version of “Frenesi.” Martha Tilton sang on two numbers. Later in 1940, he formed a new touring band that included the now famous Gramercy Five. Ray Conniff arranged for the new group and Anita Boyer sang. Shaw again grew restless and disbanded his new outfit in early 1941.
Shaw formed yet another group in August 1941. He intended it to be a 52-piece concert orchestra, but the American Federation of Musicians refused to allow him to rehearse such a large outfit without first putting up $20,000 in fees, so he reduced his ambitions and settled on a 32-piece group which consisted of 15 strings. Songwriter Bonnie Lake, wife of Shaw’s trombonist Jack Jenney, initially took on vocalist duties but left in late September. Paula Kelly replaced her. Kelly was given a three-month contract, which expired on January 1, 1942, with an option for Shaw to continue with her if he chose.
Kelly did not stay past the new year as the band went on hiatus over the holidays. When Shaw reactivated the orchestra for recording dates in January, he hired Fredda Gibson (later to become Georgia Gibbs) as vocalist. As soon as the sessions had finished, however, Shaw went into the hospital for an operation and put the band on notice. He was in no hurry to form a new orchestra. In March, he married Elizabeth Kern, daughter of composer Joseph Kern and went on an indefinite honeymoon.
While Shaw was in the hospital, his draft classification was changed to 1-A. Expecting to enter the service soon, he worked out a deal with the USO where he was to travel from military camp to military camp, whipping army bands into shape and programming camp shows. The deal was to have eliminated him from the draft, but neither the USO nor Shaw had checked with the draft board for approval, who denied the plan before Shaw could get started. Knowing he would soon be drafted, in April Shaw joined the Navy. Before reporting for duty on June 19, Shaw made a farewell tour using Lee Castle’s band. Castle, who had recently changed his last name from Castaldo, had been with Shaw’s previous orchestra and had just formed his own outfit. Gibson returned as vocalist for the tour.
Entering the Navy, Shaw went through boot camp and served two months on a minesweeper before being put in charge of a service band. He shaped up the group and took it on a tour of Pacific combat zones, often playing in dangerous and primitive conditions. The strain of such an endeavor soon got to him, however, and he was medically discharged in November 1943.
By fall of 1944, Shaw’s health had recovered and he formed a new civilian band, which included Conniff, Barney Kessel, Roy Eldridge, and Dodo Marmarosa. Vocalists included Imogene Lynn in 1944 and Lillian Lane in 1945. He formed a new studio orchestra in 1946 and signed with the Musicraft label, recording with contracted vocalists, including Lane and Teddy Walters. By 1947, he had quit that group and taken up the study of classical clarinet, for which he performed and recorded an album. In 1949, Shaw formed a bop orchestra and reformed the Gramercy Five. He again quit the music industry in 1951 and retired to a farm, where he wrote his autobiography.
In 1954, he returned briefly to music with a new Gramercy Five, but by the end of the year Artie Shaw had packed up his clarinet for the last time. He spent the rest of his life doing various concerns: writing and working briefly as a film distributor and a gun expert. He moved to Spain in 1955, to Connecticut in 1960, and to Southern California in 1973. In the 1980s, he formed a new orchestra for special performances, though he did not play in it himself. The 1985 film documentary Time Is All You’ve Got traced his career in some detail. Shaw suffered from ill health the last few years of his life. He passed away on December 30, 2004.
Artie Shaw’s middle name is often given as Jacob, a fact he said was inaccurate. He claimed he had no middle name. (Thanks to Artie Shaw and his personal assistant, Larry Rose, for this information. ↩︎
Holiday took out her frustrations on Shaw in a November 1, 1939, Down Beat magazine article, claiming that he treated her badly and didn’t pay her for her recording work, to which Shaw replied, disputing Holiday’s claims. ↩︎
Leaders were allowed to rehearse dance bands without additional fees, but concert orchestras fell under a different rule. ↩︎