Artie Shaw

Photo of Artie Shaw
  • Birth Name

    Arthur Arshawsky
  • Born

    May 23, 1910
    New York, New York
  • Died

    December 3, 2004 (age 94)
    Thousand Oaks, California

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[1] 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 to lead a small group 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.

Shaw’s unique com­bi­na­tion was wildly re­ceived by the au­di­ence. He was of­fered fi­nan­cial back­ing to form his own or­ches­tra, and in 1936 he de­buted his first dance band, which fea­tured a Dixieland ap­proach and a string quar­tet. The new group made some im­pres­sive record­ings but could­n’t com­pete with the swing or­ches­tras of the day, so Shaw dis­banded it the fol­low­ing year and formed a more con­ven­tional big band. His new out­fit was a huge suc­cess, fea­tur­ing such mu­si­cians as Georgie Auld, Buddy Rich, Tony Pastor, and Jerry Gray. Vocalists in­cluded Pastor, Peg LaCentra and Helen Forrest. Billie Holiday also sang with the band.

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 moved to Mexico.

Shaw re­turned to the U.S. two months later and formed a 32-piece stu­dio or­ches­tra which recorded sev­eral songs, in­clud­ing his fa­mous ver­sion of Frenesi.” Later in the year, he formed a new band of his own 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. He formed an­other group in the fall of that year. Vocalists in­cluded Bonnie Lake, Paula Kelly and Fredda Gibson (later to be­come Georgia Gibbs). He also dis­banded this group soon af­ter start­ing it, in January of 1942.

In April, Shaw joined the Navy. After go­ing through boot camp and serv­ing two months on a minesweeper, he was 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 and Lillian Lane. 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. 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.

Notes

  1. 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.

Music

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  • They Say
    Artie Shaw (Helen Forrest), Bluebird (1938)
  • Comes Love
    Artie Shaw (Helen Forrest), Bluebird (1939)
  • Love of My Life
    Artie Shaw (Anita Boyer), Victor (1940)
  • Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat
    Artie Shaw (Paula Kelly), Victor (1941)
  • Accentuate the Positive
    Artie Shaw (Imogene Lynn), RCA Victor (1944)
  • You Do Something to Me
    Artie Shaw (Teddy Walters), Musicraft (1946)

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Films

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  • Screenshot
    "Deep Purple"
    Artie Shaw (Helen Forrest)
    from Symphony of Swing, Warner Brothers (1939)

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Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.