Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, May 23, 1910, in New York, NY; son of Harry (a photographer) and Sarah (a seamstress) Shaw; married and divorced from June Carns, Margaret Allen, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Kern, Ava Gardner, Kathleen Winsor, Doris Dowling, and Evelyn Keyes; children: Steve Kern, Jonathan Dowling. Education: Extension work in literature at Columbia University. Addresses: Agent--Thomas Cassidy, Inc., 417 Marawood Dr., Woodstock, IL 60098.

Artie Shaw had everything at the height of his career. One of the most popular and lauded musicians of the late 1930s and 1940s, he formed successful bands almost at will, earned up to an estimated $30,000 a week, and married some of the most desirable women in America. Yet he disbanded groups soon after he formed them, scorned the money he earned, and divorced eight wives--some within a few months after marriage. At the age of 44, he simply walked away from his greatest accomplishment, confirming what author George Bernard Shaw is credited as having said, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." Gunther Schuller noted in his book The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 that to begin to solve the mystery of Artie Shaw one must answer "how the rather mediocre clarinet player that Shaw was" early in his career could become within ten years "one of the two or three most outstanding clarinetists in all of jazz--some would say the greatest of them all."

The desire that precipitated this transformation developed in Shaw's childhood. When he was seven years old, his family moved from his birthplace, New York City, to New Haven, Connecticut, where, for the first time, Shaw--ne Arthur Arshawsky--was reviled for being Jewish. Already a sensitive child, he withdrew further. "I had an enormous need to belong, to have some feeling of roots, to become part of a community, all out of a terrible sense of insecurity coupled with an inordinate desire to prove myself worthy," Shaw recounted years later in his autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity.

Shaw subsequently reasoned that money, success, and fame would fulfill his yearnings and felt he could achieve these as a musician--first as a saxophonist, then as a clarinetist. He quit school and did nothing but play his instrument. "I went at it daily for as much as six or seven hours," Shaw wrote in his autobiography, "and then quit only because my teeth ached and the inside of my lower lip was ragged and cut from the constant pressure of the mouthpiece and reed." He was only 14 years old.

Shaw learned that any great artist's latent talent is brought to the fore by desire and dedication to his craft. For a person to create something he "must be prepared to spend his life at it--if he wants to do it well, or even as well as he can. This is a matter of self-dedication," he reasoned in The Trouble With Cinderella. And so for the next ten years Shaw did just that: he practiced, learned from local musicians, sat in with local bands, became a studio musician, went on tour with larger bands, played with theater orchestras, learned to arrange music, and began composing. In 1936 Shaw formed the first of many bands he would subsequently lead.

By 1938 Shaw had "developed a real ability to spin long, elegant, vibrant, seamless lines, almost as if he [were] trying to capture on his clarinet what a violin, without the need to breathe, could do so naturally and effectively," Schuller claimed. Down Beat 's Howard Mandel, critiquing recordings from that period, declared: "In Shaw's lips and hands the clarinet bent as pliantly as a blade of grass; it thrilled him to make glissandi, fast or sad melodies, and wonderful virtuosic turns."

No one "could have convinced me of the misery I was heading for in my pursuit of the same old $ucce$$-Fame-Happiness-Cinderella constellation," Shaw wrote in his autobiography. As his artistic playing began to change and mature, so did his artistic vision. "Shaw was, in his best years, an uncompromising searcher for the lofty and the expressive, for real musical substance, not only in his own playing but in the styles and concepts of his bands," Schuller observed. But society's definition of musical success differed; in the field of popular entertainment Shaw was trying to create art.

The incredible popularity of the 1939 recording "Begin the Beguine," an old Cole Porter song, thrust Shaw and his band into the disparaging limelight. To his chagrin, this and other recordings, including "Frenesi," "Summit Ridge Drive," and "Star Dust," became successful for what he saw as the wrong reasons. He was creating music to which he wanted people to listen, not jitterbug. Years later, he told John S. Wilson of the New York Times, "If they want to dance, it's their business. My business is to play music that is very, very hearable. Mozart wrote dance music but nobody dances to it. It's a matter of training an audience."

Shaw was never able to control his listeners. "From that general period until 1954, Shaw sifted in and out of music like a reprise," Robert Lewis Taylor noted in the New Yorker. "He worked up a number of fine bands, but scuttled them quickly when they grew popular; he felt crushed by success and was angered by adulation." Shaw even suffered several nervous breakdowns and retreated from the music business many times only to return with new groups and new combinations: small ensembles, large groups, a jazz group surrounded by a symphonic ensemble of strings, woodwinds, and his famous Gramercy Five harpsichord. But nothing worked to his satisfaction. "The fact that Shaw had at least eight different bands between 1936 and 1955 ... is symptomatic of both his searching and his confusion, and ultimately of his inability to find what he was looking for," Schuller contended in The Swing Era.

Shaw quit playing his clarinet in 1954 and left the music business. He cited countless reasons for his sudden departure: the insensitivity and ignorance he encountered in the popular music business; the stifling effect of the public's continued demand for his past hit recordings; creative stagnation; and his desire to pursue other interests such as creative writing. But these justifications, Christopher Porterfield noted in Time, have failed to dissuade "the conviction, still held by many fans, critics, and fellow musicians, that a gift like Shaw's is something you just don't abandon." Shaw returned in 1983--during a resurgent interest in big bands--to help reorganize a band under his name, but did not perform himself, rendering it inconsequential.

In his musical career and other endeavors, Shaw sought goals and truths--some real and some imagined. But the drive that propelled him toward those ideals also pushed them out of his reach. "The closer an artist gets to perfection," he explained to People 's Richard Lemon, "the further up his idea of perfection is, so he's chasing a receding horizon." Schuller concluded that this personal sense of unattainable achievement should not have dimmed Shaw's place among us: "That Shaw was able in his finest accomplishments to sweep us along in his searching and discoveries and at one point--1939--represent the best the Swing Era had to offer, we can hold forever in highest esteem." But Shaw, a man who walked away from music when his tone was "crystalline, his lines distinctively long and sinuous, full of witty, sometimes startling interjections and exuberant flurries," Porterfield commented, leaves a lasting impression that is forever muddied, stained by the mystery of "the richness of what was, the wistfulness of what might have been."

by Rob Nagel

Artie Shaw's Career

Toured with various bands and orchestras, 1925-31; free-lance studio musician, 1931-34; bandleader of various swing and jazz bands, 1936-54; appeared with his band in films, including Dancing Co-Ed, 1939, and Second Chorus, 1940; retired from music in 1954. Since 1954 has pursued various activities, including fishing, dairy farming, marksmanship, film and theater production, college and university lecturing, and writing. Lectured annually at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Oxnard College. Reorganized a band bearing his name that he occasionally conducted, 1983. Subject of Academy Award-winning documentary Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got, 1986. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1942-44; led two bands.

Artie Shaw's Awards

Honorary doctor of music, University of Nebraska, 1938; Hall of Fame Award, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1977, for recording "Begin the Beguine" and "Star Dust;" honorary doctor of music, California Lutheran College, 1987; Presidential Award, American Society of Music Arrangers, 1990.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

November 5, 2004: Shaw was named a recipient of the 2005 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters fellowship, a $25,000 award that will be given in January at a ceremony in Long Beach, California. Source: New York Times,, November 5, 2004.

December 29, 2004: Shaw died of natural causes on December 30, 2004, in Newbury Park, California. He was 94. Source: New York Times,, January 3, 2005.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…