For the last 60 years or so, any young clarinetist with an ear for jazz has been vividly aware of Artie Shaw, who died Thursday at 94, and the music he played in his surprisingly short career. I sure was. But, even though I was good enough as a teenager to have played the thorny clarinet part in his “Concerto for Clarinet,” my instrument was spending most of its time in the closet when I first met Shaw in person nearly a decade ago.
Which was probably just as well, since the clarinet, as such, was something that he had little interest in discussing. In fact, when I slipped up during one of our conversations and mentioned the instrument, he told me a story he had often repeated. It had to do with an encounter he had with his longtime rival bandleader and clarinetist, Benny Goodman.
After listening impatiently to Goodman discussing his approach to the clarinet, Shaw said he finally responded with, “Benny, you don’t understand. You play the clarinet. I play the music.” Given Goodman’s emphasis upon the instrument’s technique and Shaw’s ever-probing musical imagination, it was hard to argue with his comment.
When I first met Artie to write a story about him, he was living in Newbury Park. I’d been warned by his assistant to look carefully for the address because the house was on a flag lot -- in other words, it did not front on the street but was reachable by a long driveway past another house.
As I drove down the driveway to the modest-looking two-story building, I wondered about the path that had led Shaw to this distant suburb after extraordinary show business successes and marriages to some of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood.
Inside the cluttered house, the golden years of his swing era successes seemed even more remote.
He greeted me with a kind of grumpy shrug and a handshake. Dressed in a plaid work shirt and nondescript trousers, he seemed the epitome of a curmudgeon. And, to some extent, he was precisely that. But a curmudgeon with things to say that were worth hearing.
Shaw was a man with opinions and with the data to back them. Virtually every available surface in his house was stacked with books -- including the kitchen and the bathrooms. Upstairs, library-like stacks contained even more -- more than 10,000 by his count.
Had he read them all? Almost surely not. But his opinions, whether literary, social, philosophical, technical or musical, were always well founded, clearly the reflection of a curious and omnivorous mind.
For example, he described his view of the connection between jazz and popular music -- oil-and-water elements he spent the early years of his career attempting to blend -- with a conceptual overview I’d never heard before.
Using his hands to illustrate the lines on a graph, he described pop music as a continuing horizontal line. But jazz, he said, began at a point below the pop music level as a kind of folk-based music. Rising slowly -- again, illustrated by his hand -- it intersected with pop music briefly before moving in a continuing upward slope.
“That intersection,” said Shaw, “the point at which the two lines cross, is the swing era. It was time when popular music tastes perfectly matched what jazz players were doing. But pop stayed on the same level, while jazz continued to move up, to become more complex.”
It was the most succinct description of the dichotomy between jazz and pop that I’d ever heard. Aside from its applicability to the music in general, it also provided a foundation for his own frustrations -- almost from the beginning of his career -- with both the blandishments and the hazards facing a gifted jazz artist trying to remain creatively centered during a high visibility career in the entertainment world.
Sitting there with Shaw in his hermetic cave of books, listening to him toss out similar insights with casual ease, it didn’t take long to develop an affection for the life force in this remarkable man.
Admiring as I was of his extraordinary clarinet playing, still astonished that he had given up the instrument when he was in his early 40s and never looked back, I was even more fascinated by his willingness, his insistence, upon moving forward into new intellectual and artistic territories.
Well into his 80s at the time, he spoke with sardonic annoyance about aspects of the political world, about marriage and divorce, about the hazards of the artist in a material world.
But most of all he spoke about ideas, about his continuing work on a massive autobiography in the form of a novel -- more than 1,800 pages at the time, he said, wryly noting that he was working with an editor to try to keep it to a couple of volumes.
I saw Shaw a few times in succeeding years -- once at a small dinner and fundraiser, at which he expressed annoyance at having been given too short a time to express his prolific ideas. Although the diminishing of his physical health was becoming apparent, his mind was still sharp.
When I heard that he had passed away, I pulled my old Selmer licorice stick out of the closet and opened the case.
As glad as I had been to meet and get to know Shaw in his post-instrumental life, it was his clarinet playing that had resonated most strongly in my life.
Wetting a reed, attaching it to the clarinet mouthpiece, I pulled out the music for his “Concerto for Clarinet” and quickly realized that its virtuosic demands were beyond my current skills.
But, still in search of some sort of closure, I found a CD of “Begin the Beguine,” listened for a few moments to its buoyant opening rhythms, then happily played along with the unforgettable Shaw solo.