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.


  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.


Previous <<
Play > Pause ||
Next >>
0:00 / 0:00
Select a song to play
Play All
  • 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)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.


Select a video to play
  • Screenshot
    "Deep Purple"
    Artie Shaw (Helen Forrest)
    from Symphony of Swing, Warner Brothers (1939)

We embed media from YouTube and the Internet Archive. Items may disappear on those services without notice. If you run across something that's no longer available, please let us know so we can remove the embed.

Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.