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A Jazz Icon and Iconoclast Who Despised His Fame

Times Staff Writer

Artie Shaw, who rose to fame as one of the swing era’s finest bandleaders and most innovative clarinetists before slamming the door on the music business with a Shakespearean flourish, died Thursday. He was 94.

Shaw, whose eight wives included such Hollywood legends as Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, died at his home in Newbury Park. The cause of death was not announced but Shaw had been in failing health for some time.

From the 1930s to the mid-'50s, Shaw formed, disbanded and reorganized bands that made some of the most enduring recordings of the swing era, from his first hit in 1938 with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” to his last recordings with the Gramercy Five, made in 1954 and released more than 30 years later.

Benny Goodman, another clarinetist bandleader of the swing era and a rival, was perhaps more famous, which galled Shaw. But Shaw’s innovations, musical depth and swinging style placed him firmly in the pantheon of 20th century big band and jazz musicians.

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“He was a real master of the clarinet, virtually incomparable in the beauty of his tone and unique in his flawless control,” said composer Gunther Schuller, who has written extensively about jazz.

Highest on many music buffs’ lists -- and Shaw’s own -- is the so-called 1949 band, one of his last, which expanded its scope well beyond the big band genre and other popular music that had begun to entrap Shaw with their success. The short-lived band recorded “ ‘S Wonderful,” among other tunes.

By then, however, Shaw was so far ahead of his fans musically that he was forced to fire the musicians in order to hire a band that played the sort of popular songs Shaw hated.

That group was to be his last big band.

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Shaw continued to record for a short time with the Gramercy Five, which also included guitarist Tal Farlow, vibraphonist Joe Roland, bassist Tommy Potter, pianist Hank Jones and drummer Irv Kluger.

George T. Simon, writing in “The Big Bands,” said of this final group: “Make no mistake, these [record] sides represent a personal triumph for Shaw as a clarinetist, perhaps the pinnacle of his work on the instrument.”

But record companies were more interested in popular music so the “last recordings,” as they came to be known, were not released at the time. In 1954, Shaw made good on an oft-repeated threat to abandon his profession, leaving many fans and critics mystified.

“How many people can you mention who were as definitive in their medium as Artie Shaw was who absolutely quit?” saxophonist and conductor Loren Schoenberg noted in 2003.

Shaw’s stock answer to the oft-asked “why?” was that “it was like having a gangrenous arm -- I had to cut it off to survive.” He never again went before an audience to play the clarinet.

Still, decades after he left the music business, Shaw told friends, he would find himself working out chords on tunes like “All the Things You Are.” Or he would wake up ghost-fingering the clarinet.

The intellectual, intensely curious Shaw, a voracious reader, spent well over half his life as a writer without distinction. Besides his 1952 autobiography, “The Trouble With Cinderella,” he published two books of novellas and, for 15 years, worked on a lengthy, unpublished novel based on his life as a musician.

Echoing the thoughts of many, jazz writer Gene Lees, a longtime friend who eventually broke with the irascible Shaw, said: “Artie Shaw gave up being one of the most brilliant musicians ever to being a second-rate writer.”

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Although Shaw also dabbled in other things, including farming, for the most part he wrote and watched from the sidelines as new generations of fans discovered his music. Reissues of his recordings continued to sell well and a 2003 retrospective album, the 95-track “Self Portrait,” was released by Bluebird/BMG and nominated for a Grammy as the best historical album.

In 1985, an Academy Award-winning documentary, Brigitte Berman’s “Time Is All You’ve Got,” was made about him.

In 2003, Shaw finally agreed to give two of his clarinets, including the one he used to record “Begin the Beguine,” to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“The amazing thing is I’m alive to see it,” Shaw said of his newfound popularity.

Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born May 23, 1910, an only child of immigrant dressmakers; his mother was Austrian and his father was Russian. When Arthur was 7, his parents moved from a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York City to New Haven, Conn.

His first instrument was a ukulele. But at 13, he sneaked into a vaudeville house and saw a musician playing a “glistening, golden gadget with mother of pearl keys stuck all over it.” For Shaw, it was a tantalizing glimpse of a glamorous life.

He worked in a deli to earn the $40 for a beat-up old C melody sax, which he taught himself to play.

Shaw formed his first band in high school: the Peter Pan Novelty Orchestra, which played at local events. That led to an audition with the local dance band led by Johnny Cavallaro, who was impressed with Shaw but told him he had to learn to sight read music.

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Shaw was back within a month and was hired at the age of 15. Soon after, he left high school and changed his name to Art Shaw.

When Cavallaro said he needed Shaw to double on the clarinet, Shaw taught himself to play the instrument. He eventually abandoned the sax when he began to “think clarinet.”

For several years, Shaw played in Cleveland, Los Angeles and New York.

It was during this time, working in Harlem, that Shaw met Billie Holiday, who would later sing with one of his bands. Shaw was thought by many to be the first white bandleader to break the color barrier by hiring a black singer. (Holiday recorded one song with Shaw: “Any Old Time,” which Shaw wrote for her.)

Eventually, Shaw got hired as a staff musician at CBS in New York. His livelihood secured for a while, he started to educate himself and thought he might prefer the life of a writer.

He quit music for the first time about a year later and bought a dilapidated house in Bucks County, Pa. He read everything he could get his hands on and set out to write a book about jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, one of his idols.

But he found himself staring at blank pieces of paper.

“It took a year for me to discover that a typewriter isn’t a clarinet,” he said.

Discouraged, Shaw returned to music in order to earn “about 25,000 bucks” so that he could quit the business and “make some altogether different kind of life for myself.”

Back in New York, where swing music was coming into style, Shaw got the chance to form a group to play at a short intermission between performances at a concert at Manhattan’s Imperial Theatre. It would prove to be a major breakthrough.

Under the influence of the classical music by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Debussy and Ravel that he had been studying, he pulled together an unusual mix of instruments -- a string quartet, a rhythm section, himself on clarinet, but no piano -- and quickly composed a number, “Interlude in B-Flat,” to perform.

The crowd loved it and wanted more, so a stunned Shaw, who had no other material at the time, had the group play “Interlude” again.

This success led to forming his first orchestra, which opened at the Lexington Hotel in 1935. But despite the reaction at the Imperial Theatre, the public wasn’t ready for a group formed around a string quartet.

Shaw’s second, more traditional dance band was Art Shaw and His New Music, which became Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.

In 1938, the group recorded “Begin the Beguine,” a Cole Porter tune that was recorded for Bluebird records as the flip side of a swinging version of “Indian Love Call,” which everyone expected to be Shaw’s first hit. Instead, “Beguine” would make a celebrity out of Shaw -- and haunt him until the day he died.

Shaw never seemed to enjoy his fame. At one point, he was making $30,000 a week and getting tens of thousands of fan letters. But he was also what he called “catnip for all those mobs of overexcited girls.”

“I was about as utterly miserable as a fellow can possibly be and still stay on this side of suicide,” he said.

As time went on, Shaw became openly contemptuous of his fans, famously blasting them in the New York Post for being jitterbugging morons. In 1939, he announced he was retiring and left for Mexico.

But this time a disappearance by Shaw was big news -- the New York Times referred to “the Shakespearean sweep” of his exodus, “a beautifully incautious burning of all his bridges behind him.”

The retirement didn’t last long. Unable to dodge success, he recorded something he’d heard in Mexico, a tune named “Frenesi,” for a movie being made about him and his band -- “Second Chorus,” starring Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard. “Frenesi” turned out to be his second big hit and Shaw was soon back on tour with another band.

Shaw did some of his best work during this time. In 1940, his band recorded “Stardust,” Hoagy Carmichael’s standard, with a moving solo by Shaw.

Shaw said his real departure from music started in 1941, when he saw servicemen going off to war. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942, and served on a minesweeper before forming a band.

“In the South Pacific, I saw death face to face,” Shaw said later. “It was never the same after that.” He was honorably discharged in 1944 after being hospitalized for exhaustion.

By the time Shaw returned to popular music in the late ‘40s, the big band era was in decline. He put together his fine 1949 band and, when that didn’t find an audience, formed another one just to please the crowds. In the early 1950s, he again left music to write his autobiography. His last major foray into music was with the Gramercy Five in 1954.

While all this music was being made, however, Shaw, who had already been married twice before he became famous, was busy pursuing beautiful women and marrying many of them.

Before the war, he had married the young Lana Turner. After the war, he divorced his fourth wife, Elizabeth Kern -- the daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern, with whom he had a son, Steven -- and married Ava Gardner.

His last three marriages were to novelist Kathleen Winsor, author of “Forever Amber”; Doris Dowling, with whom he had a son, Jonathan; and actress Evelyn Keyes, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister in “Gone With the Wind.”

Shaw remained friends with some of the women in his life, but he found hateful names for Winsor, whom he blamed for having to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953. Grilled by the committee about why he joined the World Peace Congress, Shaw coolly said that as a veteran, he supported peace.

Though he escaped danger, he felt his appearance before the committee put a grim punctuation point on his musical career. He also faced tax problems.

Feeling persecuted, Shaw left the country, becoming an expatriate in Spain. He and Keyes, whom he met while living abroad, built a beautiful home outside a small village in Catalonia, but he returned to the United States in the 1960s, eventually settling in California.

After his divorce from Keyes, Shaw lived in Los Angeles for a while, then moved to a modest home in Newbury Park. He lived alone and continued to work daily on his book, which, by the time he turned it over to his publisher, had grown to more than 90 chapters.

Though he often had adversarial feelings about his audiences, Shaw had some great moments on the bandstand.

“I remember a night someplace in Pennsylvania,” Shaw told the New Yorker magazine. “Everybody was tired, hungry, beat after a long jump on the road -- and suddenly it happened. It was the best jazz night of my life. Don’t ask me how. Most nights, I halfway hoped for rain, so nobody’d turn up. That way we could play without interference -- the crowd almost always got between me and the music.

“But on this night everything worked. It was a big crowd, too, as I remember. I had a red-hot first trumpet -- maybe it was Billy [Butterfield] -- and when that first phrase ripped out, I said to myself, ‘Oh, boy, this is going to be some night!’ ... Man, we nearly tore the roof off of that place.”

He said the band tried to repeat the experience the next night, but it was gone.


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