Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

May/June 2017: Buster Williams (Festival Edition)

Artie Shaw: Highlights from Self Portrait

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“The King of Swing,” Artie Shaw, was one of the most colourful and popular jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. Shaw was also opinionated, litigious, and cantankerous, but more importantly he possessed a brilliant mind and was a gifted musician. He was married eight times, and his wives included Betty Kern (the daughter of composer Jerome Kern), novelist Kathleen Winsor, and actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Evelyn Keyes. This made him a great subject for the 1985 Academy Award-winning documentary, Time Is All You’ve Got, by Toronto filmmaker Brigitte Berman.

Artie was born Arthur Arshawsky, the son of immigrant parents who worked in the clothing business in New York City. When he was fourteen, he taught himself to play the sax, and a few months later the clarinet. At age fifteen, Shaw left home to play music full time. In the late 1930s, he formed his own band, and was one of the first bandleaders to include a string section in his orchestra.

Shaw’s music helped to define the swing era and in the process he sold more than 100 million records. He soon acquired his title “King of Swing,” and at the peak of his popularity he was earning $60,000 a week. His first hit, “Begin the Beguine,” was intended to be a B-side of a recording. But fans loved it so much, it topped the charts for six weeks in 1938. It made Shaw famous at the age of twenty-eight. Unhappy with stardom, Shaw walked away from the music business on several occasions, each time reinventing his musical approach. He finally retired from performing in 1954 at age forty-four when he put the clarinet away for good. Shaw said he stepped down for his survival and sanity, because he could no longer play the perfect music he heard in his head.

Self Portrait [Bluebird RCA #63845] consists of fourteen tracks pulled from a larger, five-CD box set compiled by Shaw in 2001. The selections were recorded between 1937 and 1954 and include his most famous songs, “Nightmare,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Stardust,” and “Frenesi.”

Unlike the other band themes of his time, his 1938 theme song, “Nightmare,” is neither bouncy nor upbeat; instead it is dark and brooding, and Shaw’s clarinet sounds delightfully ominous.

Shaw achieved much of his success by swinging the American songbook of the era. He took the best standards and gave them a classic form. His interpretation of Gershwin’s “Summertime” is open-minded and endlessly fascinating. Shaw’s need or desire to surprise people musically was one of his most appealing qualities as a musician.

“Any Old Time” features Billie Holiday on vocals. Shaw hired her as a singer at a time when most white bandleaders refused to hire blacks.

The album’s standout track is the striking “Frenesi,” a song by Alberto Dominguez that Shaw heard when he disappeared for two months to Mexico in the fall of 1939. His playing is highly musical but the real innovation rests with the string arrangement. Pleasing surprises are the inclusion of “Scuttlebutt” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from the 1954 sessions by the Gramercy Five. The big band era was certainly over by then, knocked out of the ring by rock and roll, but Shaw resurfaced that year, for the last time, with a compact bop-sounding group that featured Hank Jones on piano. It was his last recording.

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