Artie Shaw was perhaps the most enigmatic, daring and adventurous bandleader of the swing-era. An intellectual, he hated public life and loathed the music industry. Over the course of his short career he formed more than a dozen orchestras, disbanding most of them after only a few months. He also married eight times, counting among his wives movie stars Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Infamous for quitting the business every few years, only to return, Shaw had a great love for classical music which showed through in his popular recordings. Audiences either loved him or hated him. Both sentiments proved a testament to the power of his work.
Born Arthur Arshawsky in New York City, Shaw grew up on the Lower East Side until the age of eight, when his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut. He took up the saxophone at an early age and began playing professionally at 14. A year later he left home for a promised band job in Kentucky. When the position failed to materialize, he joined traveling orchestras in order to get home. He 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. During a New York engagement, Shaw hit and killed a pedestrian who stepped in front of his car. Arrested and forced to remain in the city when the band moved on, he spent the next four years trying to clear himself of manslaughter charges, working for Vincent Lopez, Red Nichols, and Paul Specht in order to earn a living and pay his legal fees. He also briefly spent time with Fred Rich’s CBS orchestra and toured with Roger Wolfe Kahn. It was during this period that he discovered the works of contemporary avant-garde classical composers whose influence would later surface in his own music.
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. Failing at that, he soon returned to New York and took up studio work. 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 his temporary group, Shaw’s first orchestra featured a string quartet, with violinist Jerry Gray providing arrangements. Saxophonist Tony Pastor, whom Shaw had grown up with in New Haven, handled male vocals, with guitarist Wes Vaughn also singing. Billed as “Art Shaw and His New Music,” the orchestra recorded on the Brunswick label. Unfortunately, Shaw’s first band, though loved by critics and music aficionados, failed to catch on with the public, and in early 1937 he scrapped the string section and formed a standard swing group. Gray remained for a short while as arranger but soon returned to his native Boston. LaCentra and Pastor also both remained, but when Shaw decided to move to Boston as well, LaCentra stayed in New York.
Shaw’s new Boston-based outfit opened in April 1937 at the Normandie Ballroom and was a huge success. Vocalist Dorothy Howe joined the band in May, though by August she had become part of Phil Napoleon’s orchestra. Bea Wain, then a radio singer, entered the studio with the band in September. Dolores O’Neill recorded with the orchestra in October. Nita Bradley was vocalist by December, remaining into early 1938. Scat singer Leo Watson also worked with the band in late 1937.
Shaw eventually brought his band back to New York, and in early 1938 he signed with Victor, who put him on their Bluebird subsidiary label, billing him as “Artie” Shaw. In March, he famously hired Billie Holiday as vocalist. Holiday was already a big star at that time and had just toured with Count Basie’s band. While it 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 rehire Nita Bradley by June to meet contractual obligations at locations that wouldn’t allow African-American artists on stage.
Shaw also needed Bradley for the studio. Holiday was 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, 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. After Bradley left the band again, Shaw hired a then unknown Helen Forrest in November. Holiday became increasingly unhappy working for Shaw, however, and she eventually had enough of both him and band work, leaving in November, shortly after Forrest joined.
Health and legal problems also plagued Shaw during this period. In September 1938, he collapsed on stage due to exhaustion, and he was absent from the band in the spring 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.
In September 1939, a Buffalo promoter sued Shaw after his band walked off the stand at intermission. The walk-off occurred after the promoter informed Shaw he was withholding part of the band’s fee because the orchestra had arrive an hour late, which had forced him to issue refunds to a number of patrons. Dancers booed Shaw as he left, calling him “fake” and “jerk.” When Shaw asked them to quiet down, the crowd grew more unruly. Police had to be called to quell what was described as a riot in the press. The summons for the lawsuit was served on Shaw by a man who stuck his face in Shaw’s car as he was driving across the border on his way to a Toronto engagement. Shaw assumed he was an autograph seeker and took it. The promoter accused Shaw of breach of contract and slander, asking for $10,000.
Troubles continued to pile up for Shaw, including another lawsuit, this time brought by his manager, Eli Oberstein, for services rendered. Then, in October, the band was dropped from the Old Gold radio program after Shaw gave an interview to the Saturday Evening Post in which he called jitterbuggers “morons” and made other attacks on his fans. Shaw finally had enough and quit without warning on November 15, walking off the bandstand and moving to Mexico City. Pastor briefly took over the orchestra but soon left to form his own outfit after the members voted to make it into a cooperative unit. Tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld became the new leader, with Gray as arranger. Forrest left for Benny Goodman.
In January 1940, Shaw broke a kneecap when he dived into the surf to save a woman’s life on a rocky beach in Acapulco. He returned to the United States, staying in Los Angeles while he recuperated, where he married actress Lana Turner in February. It was his third marriage. Heading to New York in March, he formed a 31-piece studio orchestra which recorded several now classic songs, including his famous version of “Frenesi.” Martha Tilton, Pauline Byrne, and Jack Pearce provided vocals.
Returning to Los Angeles in April for film work, Shaw made plans to form a new dance band, sending inquiries to members of his previous orchestra, asking if they’d consider joining him on the coast. In the interim, Shaw injured his knee again in June, falling off a horse, and was laid up for several days. Turner then filed for divorce in July, charging that Shaw “flew into rages and left the house without telling me when he’d be back.” That same month, Shaw’s new band began to assemble, with many former musicians returning. Shaw tried to lure Goodman trumpet player Ziggy Elman into the orchestra, but Elman, who disliked Shaw’s attitude towards dancers, is said to have replied, “You couldn’t borrow enough clams to pay me to work for you.” Shaw hired Billy Butterfield instead. The new group, which finally got off the ground in August, contained the now famous Gramercy 5. Ray Conniff arranged, and Anita Boyer sang. The orchestra traveled east in late 1940, arriving in New York in January 1941, where Shaw again grew restless and disbanded soon after. He then assemblied a studio orchestra of local musicians to work on the Burns and Allen radio show.
Remaining in New York, Shaw put together another studio group for recording sessions on Victor during spring and early summer 1941. The band contained three African-American musicians, with Lena Horne as vocalist. In July, Shaw announced plans for 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. Shaw sent out invitations to hand-picked members of his old band, including Auld and Conniff. Not one of them turned him down, giving their notice to other orchestras so they could rejoin Shaw. African-American trumpeter and singer Oran “Hot Lips” Page also became a member of the new orchestra.
Shaw’s new band debuted in August. Songwriter Bonnie Lake, wife of Shaw’s trombonist Jack Jenney, initially took on vocalist duties but left, along with Jenney, in late September, after Jenney suffered a physical collapse. To replace Lake, Shaw hired Paula Kelly on a three-month contract, which expired on January 1, 1942, with an option to continue with her if he chose. She did not stay past the new year, however, 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. Recovering, 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, he 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. Known as the Rangers, Shaw’s naval band started its life in late 1942 in New York before being transferred to Treasure Island in San Francisco and then to Pearl Harbor. Bandleader Claude Thornhill, an old friend from Shaw’s days with Austin Wylie in Cleveland, played piano and arranged but remained behind in Hawaii to organize his own outfit when the Rangers traveled to New Caledonia to began a tour of Pacific combat zones in April 1943. From there they volunteered to go to the Solomon Islands and then the New Hebrides before arriving on Guadalcanal, where they experienced nightly air raids. While in camps or on ships, the band members also did battle duty, standing watch and handling damage control. After Guadalcanal, they travelled to New Zealand and then Australia before being sent home to San Francisco in October for a much deserved rest. Arriving in November, Shaw reunited with then wife Kern and met his newborn son.
Rumors of Shaw’s discharge circulated in early 1944 when one of his associates began rehearsing a band that contained several ex-Shaw musicians. Shaw received a medical discharge in March but remained silent on his plans. Meanwhile, his marriage began to unravel, and Kern filed for divorce in July, which was granted in September. It wasn’t until August that Shaw announced the formation of a new orchestra, one that didn’t use strings. When the band debuted in October, it contained such talented musicians as Conniff, Barney Kessel, Roy Eldridge, and Dodo Marmarosa. Imogene Lynn served as vocalist.
In early 1945, Shaw resurrected the Gramercy 5 for recording work. He also announced a willingness to make friends with dancers. Billboard cited Lillian Lane as singing for Shaw in May 1945, however Down Beat had Lynn still a part of Shaw’s band in October, when a controversy erupted involving Shaw and her clarinet-playing husband, Mahlon Clark. Clark, fresh out of the Merchant Marines, joined Paul Martin’s orchestra, which was alternating with Shaw’s band at the Meadowbrook in Los Angeles. Clark played only one night with Martin before being fired, and his dismissal caused a furor among local musicians. He was one of the top clarinetists, rivaling Shaw, and rumors had Shaw and booking company MCA involved in the firing. MCA and club management had both told Martin to get rid of Clark. Neither wanted two featured clarinetists on the same bill.
Shaw used a male balladeer for the first time in five years during summer 1945 when Hal Derwin recorded with the band. Eldridge left the orchestra suddenly in September. Not long after his divorce from Kern, Shaw began a romance with actress Ava Gardner which culminated in their marriage in October 1945. And then in November, Shaw announced that he was disbanding, citing Gardner as his motive. “I would have to go east to continue with the band, and I don’t want to leave my wife,” he told Down Beat. He indicated he had no plans other than to take it easy.
Along with dropping his band, Shaw broke with Victor in late 1945. He signed with the Musicraft label in 1946 and formed a new studio orchestra, recording with vocalists Lillian Lane, Hal Stevens, Mel Tormé, Kitty Kallen, Ralph Blane, and Teddy Walters. Musicraft went bankrupt in 1947.
Shaw and Gardner divorced in October 1946, and a few days later Shaw married writer Kathleen Winsor, known for the novel Forever Amber, a sensationalist, bestselling book banned in fourteen states as pornography. Shaw and Winsor separated in early 1948 and divorced that December.
In 1948, Shaw took up the study of classical clarinet and began to make appearances with symphony orchestras, announcing in early 1949 that he was through with the dance band business and would only play longhair music in the future. In April 1949, Shaw put together a 40-piece symphonic orchestra for the opening of Bop City in New York. Playing three sets that were each an hour-and-a-half long, the performance didn’t go over well with the public, who had come to hear jazz. The concert also received negative press reviews. Shaw hit back at his detractors in a radio interview. “I wanted to find out how a typical audience would react to music which is not the usual kind of fare found in a night club,” he said.
1949 and Beyond
Shaw apparently learned his lesson. In summer 1949, he announced the formation of a new seventeen-piece dance band, sans strings, for a series of one-nighters around the country during the latter part of the year. Pat Lockwood was initial vocalist. She was dropped at the beginning of 1950. Dolores O’Neill, who had also sang with Shaw in 1937, was vocalist in mid-1950. The orchestra failed to excite audiences, and Shaw disbanded that summer and in September debuted a new version of the Gramercy 5, which consisted of Shaw and Billy Taylor’s quartet. Terry Swope initially provided vocals. Mary Ann McCall and June Hutton sang with the combo on Decca.
Shaw again quit the music industry in early 1951 and retired to a farm in Shekomeko, New York, where he ran a dairy business and wrote his autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella. In late August 1951, he sailed to England, where he planned to enter the recording studio to satisfy his contract with Decca, to whom he still owed 18 sides. The American Federation of Musicians prevented him from doing so, however, as part of an unofficial ban on American musicians recording in foreign countries. Shaw finally went into the studio for Decca in New York in early 1952, fronting a studio orchestra with arrangements by Sy Oliver and vocals by Trudy Richards. Later that year he married actress Doris Dowling. In 1953, he again briefly fronted a band, playing one-nighters mostly in Texas and Oklahoma before returning to New York for the birth of his son and to record another album for Decca.
1953 also saw Shaw called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. Rumors that Shaw was sympathetic to Communists had floated through the industry and the press since the war. One criticism leveled at him during his Bop City concert was that he had shown his politics by playing several selections from Russian composers, to which he replied that Russian composers were important in modern classical music and to not play them would in fact be more of a political statement than playing them. The musician’s union protested Shaw’s interrogation. He also had unlikely allies in the English press, where the story made headlines. Shaw was much admired in Britain. He told the committee that he never knowingly was a communist.
In late 1953, Shaw formed a new Gramercy 5 with a modernized sound. Reaction to the updated grouping proved tepid but polite. The outfit played into early 1954, 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. He and Dowling divorced in 1956. In the 1980s, Shaw 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.) ↩︎
On the label, Brunswick spelled Wain’s last name incorrectly as “Wayne.” ↩︎
It’s unsure if O’Neill actually sang live with the band or only just entered the studio with them. ↩︎
Brunswick humorously listed Watson’s unique vocals with a question mark: “Vocal (?) by Leo Watson.” ↩︎
Shaw had played on Holiday’s solo recordings in 1936. ↩︎
Holiday’s website touts her as the first black woman to sing with a white band. This is incorrect. June Richmond became the first black singer, male or female, to work with a white orchestra when she joined Jimmy Dorsey’s band in 1937. ↩︎
Shaw subsequently remade the song a few months later with Helen Forrest on vocals. ↩︎
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. ↩︎
According to Down Beat, Shaw had a deficiency of white blood cells. Doctors gave him three blood transfusions, but he was still sick. They couldn’t give him another blood transfusion because he would get a fatal amount of red blood cells. He was saved by a suggestion from his lawyer, who told the doctors to remove blood from Shaw and then give him more blood from someone who had a large amount of white blood cells. Shaw “perked up immediately.” How much of this tale is true is unknown. ↩︎
The promoter had called the musician’s union to get permission to withhold part of the fee. ↩︎
The lawsuit was settled out of court in April for an undisclosed sum. ↩︎
Shaw began to receive backlash from the public in late 1939 due to his perceived attitude. Formed initially as a joke, the S.P.A.S., the Society for the Prevention of Artie Shaw, eventually became a magnet for people who disliked either him or his music. The group held several events in various cities where members smashed Shaw records or in one case threw them in Lake Erie. ↩︎
His first two wives were Jane Carns and Margaret Allen. ↩︎
Turner’s divorce from Shaw was granted in September 1940. ↩︎
The group was labeled as “Gramercy 5” on RCA Victor recordings though it is often spelled out as “Gramercy Five” in other sources. ↩︎
Leaders were allowed to rehearse dance bands without additional fees, but concert orchestras fell under a different rule. ↩︎
Shaw was being treated for sinus trouble at the time of his discharge. ↩︎
Lane may have substituted for Lynn. ↩︎
Down Beat’s announcement of the marriage called it Shaw’s third, though it was actually his fifth. ↩︎
Down Beat serialized Shaw’s biography after its release. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.