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 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.
- 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.