Artie Shaw, the lone surviving instrumental giant of the Swing Era, stands in the sprawling upstairs space of his Newbury Park home that real estate folks call a “bonus room,” holding a large and colorful proclamation from the City of Los Angeles.
“Everybody in the city government put their name on this,” he says with a subtle hint of levity in his voice. “The weird thing is that they’re giving me an honor for something I stopped doing 35 years ago.”
The “something” is what Shaw, a feisty, vital fellow who this Wednesday turns 80--but looks 60--likes to call “The Artie Shaw Business,” referring to the international celebrity the former clarinetist/bandleader received during the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Shaw insists that when he quit active playing in 1954, he retired from music. But the “business” follows him around like a ghost, though a fairly benevolent one. After all, Shaw was, along with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, one of the three most popular instrumentalists of the Swing Era. He has made countless millions from his music--his records have sold upwards of 50 million copies--and he still gets handsome royalties from the scores of records that are in release on Bluebird/RCA, Musicmasters and Musiccraft/Discovery labels.
And, since late 1983, he has lent his name to “The Artie Shaw Orchestra, directed by Dick Johnson.” He owns the band and has appeared occasionally with it, though only as a guest leader, never as a player.
While music pays the bills, Shaw, bald and sporting a bristle-brush mustache, no longer wishes to be aligned with it: He wants to be known as Artie Shaw, writer. The once-clarinetist now has had three books published, including the 1952 autobiography “The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity” (DaCapo), the 1965 novel “I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!” (Fleet) and the 1989 book of short stories “The Best of Intentions” (John Daniel and Co.). In addition, he’s almost completed a 500-600 page novel.
“I have a special burden as a writer, since people know my name as a musician,” he says. “We have peculiar categories in America, meaning that if he’s a musician he can’t be a good writer. ‘Artie Shaw, what’s he doing writing?’ ”
Perhaps if he published more often, or had had more success as a writer, might people take him more seriously? “Oh, I don’t think so,” he says pointedly. “They might, if my name weren’t Artie Shaw. But with any name that’s well known, people read that person through a layer of preconceptions. It’s surely true that as a well-known person, it’s easier to get published.”
John Daniel, who says that “the playfulness and energy of Shaw’s writing” were two reasons he wanted to publish him, agrees that Shaw’s celebrity places him at a disadvantage. “Whether, because of his wealth from his music, he has the privilege or the luxury of not having to publish, Artie is behind the eight-ball because nobody will read him just as a writer,” he says. “A brilliant clarinetist, or an ex-husband of the stars (Shaw was briefly married to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner), that’s what they think of first. That’s hard for an artist to put up with. He’s had to live with the onus of his success all the time.”
If nothing else, in Shaw’s mind, he’s a writer. “I’ve been mainly living as a writer since about 1950, getting up in the morning, writing for four hours, etc.,” he says, now sitting at his somewhat-cluttered desk in a corner of the book-lined upstairs room that looks out on his pool, and then, in turn, the suburbs that are located just north of Thousand Oaks, the Ventura Freeway and the soft, sloping hills beyond. “Maybe I didn’t have any history as a writer then, but I’d say I do now. I’ve done three books and I’m working on a fourth.”
“Look,” Shaw goes on, an edge in his voice. “I come up here and I do it. I write. I feel compelled to. Why would anybody in his right mind sit down and write? There’s nobody out there clamoring for fine writing. I have a necessity to do this.”
Shaw started his novel-in-progress, currently bearing the working title of “The Education of Albie Snow,” in 1978. Though Shaw says he doesn’t like to talk a book as he’s writing it, he does acknowledge that it’s about a young reed player who goes to New York in the late 1920s to seek fame and fortune in the jazz world. The book stops off when the protagonist Snow is 23 years old, in the mid-'30s.
The novel, and all of Shaw’s writing, he says, is “to some degree autobiographical. If it’s not, it won’t deal with the truth, and by that, I mean what’s real to me. We are the sum total of our experiences; if they’re rich, we’ll resonate more. I’ve lived for a long time and I’ve learned a few things that I’m passing on. Some will hear it, some will not.”
It’s a painstaking process, writing a book. “I’m trying to write the most simple, lucid prose and it’s hard to write simply. . . . I work very, very slowly,” he notes.
Then, in one of his frequent asides to offer a quote or anecdote that illustrates a particular point he wishes to drive home, Shaw reads a quote from a typed sheet by writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The sheet--somewhat brown with age--has been tacked, along with several others by the likes of Paul Gauguin and Steve Tesich, on a wooden shelf by his desk.
” '(As novelists), our power is patience . . . (writing a novel) is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anyone can do it, all it takes is time.’ Isn’t that a gem?”
Mostly self-taught, Shaw has taken a few writing classes, such as one in creative writing from Columbia University Extension. “They didn’t do any good,” he says. “I thought writing was a matter of how much you knew, but it’s about having to do it. If you don’t have that fire in the belly, you won’t do anything.”
Though Shaw has no publisher for his novel, he does have an agent, the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in New York City, which represents such notables as Norman Mailer, Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. Jack Scovil, editorial director at Meredith, is “enthusiastic” both about placing Shaw’s book with a large publishing house, and about Shaw’s work in general.
“Based on what he has written in the past, we think he’s a marvelous writer, particularly his dry wit and verbal play,” says Scovil. “He’s a fascinating man who can really bring to bear the embodiment of the era . . . he’s demonstrated all of the talents of doing a top-notch novel.”
Shaw, whose brown eyes shine with a lively sparkle, has been reading voraciously since he was 8 and took his first shot at writing a book when he was 24. He saw it as a way out of the public life of a celebrity that came with his fame in the music business. “I’m by nature a kind of insulated, private person and (writing) was something I could do alone, and might be able to make a living at,” he’s said.
That hasn’t happened yet, and Shaw, to his pleasure, still makes a very good living from his music. “Hell, that’s very gratifying. I’m a hustler. I’ll take the money wherever it is,” he cracks, laughing.
Born Arthur Arshawsky in Manhattan in 1910, Shaw was raised in New Haven, Conn., and left home at 15--"I didn’t like it there” is all he’ll say about his early departure. He began to work almost immediately and by age 23 was one of the most in-demand studio musicians in New York. In 1934, he retired to Bucks County, Pa., to try writing, but soon returned to the music business, gaining some attention in 1935 with “Interlude in B Flat,” a tune he performed with a small jazz band and a string quartet.
This unusual instrumentation didn’t pan out, so Shaw formed a more conventional big band of saxes, trombones, trumpets and rhythm. In 1938, when he recorded a Jerry Gray arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” Shaw struck pay dirt.
The tune was a smash hit and Shaw became a superstar. “I was Elvis. I was making $60,000 a week and that was 1938 dollars,” he says with a chuckle.
Shaw loved music and was unquestionably a remarkable musician--in his book “The Swing Era,” Gunther Schuller calls him a “real master of the clarinet, virtually incomparable in the beauty of his tone and unique in his flawless control.” But he had no affinity for the fame that accompanied his rise to stardom. “The public is constantly intruding on your privacy. It’s something you don’t know will happen until it does, and then you’re not prepared for it,” he says.
Between 1938 and 1954, Shaw quit music several times, for both mental and physical health reasons. One thing that caused him to quit was that he wanted to play something new and different, while his public was constantly hungry for his hits, which included “Frenesi,” “Stardust” and “Summit Ridge Drive.” “I could never understand why people wanted to dance to my music,” he says. “I made it good enough to listen to.”
He put his clarinet down for the last time--he still plays a bit of piano, but not in public--"because I didn’t want to play it anymore--I wanted to play this,” pointing at his MacIntosh.
Shaw doesn’t talk much about music--he would rather talk about ideas. But when he does, it’s with the same grit and enthusiasm with which he takes on any subject.
For example, consider the word jazz . “Jazz, what is jazz, what are they talking about?” he asks with ire. “It’s a bad word. I’d rather call it American Informal Music, as opposed to European Formal Music.”
Asked about his supposed rivalry with Benny Goodman, Shaw says, “It’s like trying to compare Picasso and Braque. Benny, who was every bit as dedicated as I was, wanted to be an instrumentalist --he was a superb technician--while I wanted to be a musician . I think my mind was more complex than his. It certainly is now,” he adds with a robust laugh.
Shaw’s tastes run toward European composers, from Mozart and Beethoven to Schoenberg and Bartok. He does like some “jazz,” such as Lester Young and Bix Beiderbecke, but has little time for boppers like Charlie Parker. “I’ve heard enough of that,” he says.
What’s his reaction when hears one of his hits, like “Begin the Beguine”? “Ho . . . hum,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t like it or I don’t respect it. We did a very good job at that time. I certainly wouldn’t do it that way now.”
A typical Shaw day begins at 7 a.m. “First I breathe,” he jokes, then he takes a brisk one-mile walk, then shower, a breakfast of coffee--"one cup"--toast and then work on his book. Later, after lunch, he reads. (He’s currently tackling Richard S. Westfall’s “Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton,” Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy” and David Dunaway’s “Huxley in Hollywood.”) Then it’s back to the Mac, or maybe a little social life--"though I’m pretty antisocial these days. You can’t get anything done unless you are.”
Notorious for his eight marriages--Turner, Gardner, Elizabeth Kern (daughter of Jerome Kern), Kathleen Windsor (author of “Forever Amber”) and Evelyn Keyes, among them--Shaw has no patience for the institution. “It’s completely outmoded,” he says, but does admit to still liking the ladies.
“I’m seeing one now, and it’s working out pretty well,” he says. “We’re keeping a journal. That’s something new.”
Shaw figures an epitaph he gave to Who’s Who in America pretty well sums up his life: “He did the best he could with the material at hand.” He smiles mischievously, then adds, “Another good one would be, ‘Go away.’ ”