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Artie Shaw was born in New York, May 23, 1910, and was raised in Connecticut. He took up the alto-sax when he was 12, and just a few years later he was already playing in some local Connecticut bands. After leaving home at age 15 for a job in Kentucky, which never happened, he had to work in traveling bands to get back home. At this time he is known to have worked with Don "Johnny" Cavallaro in Connecticut (New Haven) and Florida, following which he traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked in the Merle Jacobs and Joe Cantor bands.
In 1926, Artie switched to the clarinet, and spent the following three years in Cleveland working on and off as arranger/musical director for the Austin Wylie band. He also doubled on tenor sax and clarinet while playing with the Irving Aronson Commanders.
As 1929 was ending, Artie came to New York City. While waiting for his Local 802 card (musician's union), he played with pianist Willie 'The Lion' Smith at 'Pod's and Jerry's', a Harlem night spot. Often sitting in at after hours sessions at local clubs, he earned a reputation as a technically brilliant clarinetist. He enjoyed a number of record dates (as a sideman) with various jazz bands, including some with Teddy Wilson; backing Billie Holiday; and others such as Vincent Lopez, Paul Specht, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and finally with Red Nichols at the Park Central Hotel in 1931.
In late 1931, he worked in the Fred Rich band for a year and then re-joined the Roger Wolfe Kahn band for a year long tour during 1933. After Kahn, Artie freelanced in New York studios, and clubs.
In 1934, he took a hiatus from the music business to run a farm in the Buck's County area of Pennsylvania (not far from New York City), after which he returned to free-lancing in New York.
In May 1936, Shaw formed a small band - strings, clarinet, and three rhythm - for an engagement at the Imperial Theater. The date was so successful, that he was able to obtain financial backing to form a larger group, with regular dance band instrumentation, for a recording contract and a Boston debut. This band, too, was rather short lived. In April 1937, he formed a more conventional big band that was an immediate success, due greatly to the fine Jerry Gray melodic arrangements. This band made several recordings including the hugely successful "Begin The Beguine". The success of this recording propelled his band to the forefront of leading dance bands.
This band had such sidemen as Johnny Best (trumpet); Cliff Leeman (drums); Les Robinson, Georgie Auld (reeds); Tony Pastor (tenor sax); and later, Buddy Rich (drums).
During 1938, the band had Billie Holiday as it's vocalist, but the singer was forced to quit after a succession of disagreeable incidents due to racial discrimination then prevalent in New York's hotels an radio studios. Other singers such as Kitty Kallen and Helen Forrest (1939) then sang with the band. (His bands in 1938 to 1941, were perhaps his best.)
The actual band in late '38 when Billie
was with him consisted of:
Saxes: Les Robinson, Tony Pastor, Hank Freeman, Ronny Perry - Trumpets: Johnny Best, Claude Bowen, Chuck Peterson - Trombones: Russell Brown, George Arus, Harry Rogers - Drums: Cliff Leeman - Bass: Sid Weiss - Guitar: Al Avola - Piano: Les Burness
Due to recording company contract problems, Billie only made one recording with Shaw; "Any Old Time".
In the summer of 1939, he was absent from the band for an tonsillectomy, and in the fall (Nov.) of 1939, he abruptly folded the band and went to Mexico. But, he came back to Hollywood for a featured role in the Fred Astaire - Paulette Goddard film 'Second Chorus'. This film brought him another hit record in "Frenesi", as he re-formed a band that had both a string section and a band within a band, - The Gramercy Five. This big band had such sidemen as Billy Butterfield (trumpet); Jack Jenney (trumpet); Nick Fatool (drums) and Johnny Guarneri (piano). When he switched to the small Gramercy Five group, Guarneri also switched from the piano to the harpsichord, giving the Gramercy Five a very distinctive sound. A number of very successful recordings followed including "Concerto for Clarinet"; "Summit Ridge Drive"; and "Special Delivery Stomp". But, once again, Shaw's dislike for the public life caused him to disband, and once again he re-formed a big band only to be forced to fold when America entered WW2.
Incidentally, during the late '30's - early 1940's, Shaw was set up as a rival to Benny Goodman. The antagonism was pure invention on the part of the public relations men. In real life, the two were very amicable towards each other. Nevertheless, their fans engaged in heated arguments over the respective merits of their idols.
In 1942, now as a member of the U.S. Navy, Shaw hand-picked some sidemen and formed a band that toured the South Pacific Theater of War. In February of 1944, he received a medical discharge and formed a new band that featured sidemen such as Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge (trumpet); Barney Kessel (); Dodo Marmarosa (); Chuck Gentry (reeds); Stan Fishelson, and other top musicians. This band, just like all the others, was short lived. Through the remainder of the 1940's, Artie formed other bands only to break them up within a few months of their formation.
Also in the late 40s, he began studying the classical guitar. In February 1949, he guested at New York's Carnegie Hall with the National Symphony Orchestra. In the spring of '49, he had a short gig at New York's 'Bop City'. He also began developing a career as a writer. Still, in Sept. 1949, he was again touring with a big band, continuing into the early 1950's. In late 1953, he re-formed a very short-lived Gramercy Five. After this, he again tried his hand at dairy farming in Skekomeko, NY.
By the mid-50's, he had retired from music and spent much of his time writing. In 1955, he moved to Gerona, Spain. He remained in Spain, as a writer - he played no music - until returning to the U.S. in 1960, and even sold his Spanish property in 1962. At that time, he was married to film actress Evelyn Keyes, and they moved to a home in Lakeville, CT., where he continued to expand his writing career.
In the 1980's, Shaw again reformed a band, this time under the direction of Dick Johnson, which performed at special concerts. The 1985 film documentary "Time Is All You've Got" traced his career in some detail.
There were plans, in the early 1990s, for Shaw to appear in London, Eng., fronting a band this time formed by Bob Wilber to re-create Artie's music.
Artie's capacity to form and disband many orchestras carried over to his personal life. He also had the same type of unfortunate capacity to marry any girl he met, and divorcing them shortly thereafter. All told, he had eight wives. Among the women he married were; Lana Turner; Ava Gardner; Kathleen Windsor; Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes. After the 6th or 7th divorce, he disappeared suddenly from his band, and surfaced in Mexico. (Alimony Payments to 6 wives is such a drag.) His theme song, Nightmare was truly prophetic!
Like Benny, Shaw was a technical marvel who played with real precision, yet always swinging. Even so, Shaw's erratic band leading career, together with his erratic personal life, precluded his ever reaching the same level of Benny Goodman's musicianship. Nevertheless, he always had a very delightful and musical band, which with his frequent hiring of black musicians such as Oran "Hot Lips" Page; Billie Holiday, and Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge, helped in bringing down racial barriers. America is richer because of Artie's music.
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