Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on May 23, 1910, in New York, NY; died December 20, 2004, in Newbury Park, CA; son of Harry (a tailor) and Sarah (a seamstress) Shaw; married and divorced June Carns, Margaret Allen, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Kern, Ava Gardner, Kathleen Winsor, Doris Dowling, and Evelyn Keyes; children: Steve Kern (with Kern), Jonathan Dowling (with Dowling). Education: Columbia University, extension work in literature.

Artie Shaw seemed to have everything. At the height of his career he was lauded as one of the most popular musicians of the 1930s and 1940s; he formed successful bands, 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 times. At the age of 44, he simply quit his musical career. At the time of his death in late 2004, the clarinet-playing band leader was considered to be "the last surviving giant of the Swing Era," according to Terry Teachout in Commentary.

Shaw was born in 1910 to Jewish parents on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His father worked as a tailor and spoke Yiddish; his mother was a seamstress. When Shaw was seven years old, his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where, for the first time, Shaw---nee Arthur Arshawsky---was shamed for being Jewish. Already a sensitive child, he withdrew. "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 1952 autobiography The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity.

Shaw reasoned that money, success, and fame might fulfill his yearnings, and felt he could achieve these as a musician, first as a saxophonist, then as a clarinetist. He began playing at the age of 12. His father left the family when Shaw was a freshman in high school. Shaw 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 14 years old.

Fervid Dedication to Craft

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," he reasoned in The Trouble With Cinderella. Spurred by the need to support his family when his father deserted them, Shaw decided to earn a living by playing commercial music. He ran away from home at age 15 and lived, variously, in Nashville, New Haven, New York City, and Hollywood. For the next ten years Shaw 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 signed with Victor's Bluebird label. In printing the label for his first recording, he became "Artie." 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."

As his playing began to change and mature, so did Shaw's 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," Gunther Schuller observed in his book The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. The incredible popularity of the 1939 recording "Begin the Beguine," a Cole Porter song, thrust Shaw and his band, which included a young Buddy Rich on drums, into the limelight. To Shaw's dismay, however, this and other recordings, including "Frenesi," "Summit Ridge Drive," and "Star Dust" became successful for what he saw as the wrong reasons. Shaw was creating music he wanted people to listen to, not dance to. 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."

"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.

Walked Away at His Peak

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. Teachout felt that "one may take his innumerable protestations on this subject with a grain of salt---he must also have known that his brand of jazz no longer appealed to the general public." For all the justifications Shaw made over the years, Christopher Porterfield noted in Time, they failed to stop "the conviction, still held by many fans, critics, and fellow musicians, that a gift like Shaw's is something you just don't abandon."

Mel Torme, who had performed with Shaw, had another idea regarding his retirement. "Artie Shaw was never, ever, not one day of his life, comfortable being a performer," he told National Public Radio (NPR) in a 1994 interview. "I mean, he hated being out in front of the crowds, and he loved playing the clarinet. But if he could have played the clarinet in his living room just for himself, I think he would have been just as happy as pie."

Shaw is notably one of the few bandleaders who integrated his bands. His first featured singer was a young Billie Holliday. Among his band members were Oran "Hot Lips" Page and Roy Eldridge. His views on race attracted him to the Communist party. Although he was apparently never a member, in the 1950s he was blacklisted and ordered to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in May of 1953. He moved to Spain in 1956.

At the behest of promoters, Shaw briefly emerged in 1983 during a resurgent interest in big bands, to organize a band bearing his name, although he did not perform himself. To lead the orchestra, he appointed Dick Johnson, who had played with bands including those of Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich.

A Private Personal Life

Throughout his life, Shaw seemed reluctant to discuss his personal life beyond his own musings in his autobiography. Nor did he write much about his many romantic affairs, marriages and divorces. He bristled and snapped at interviewers who wanted to know about his marriages. The precedent was set in his memoir, in which he wrote, "I am not going to go into the intimate details of any of my various ventures into the marital state. But one thing can be safely and accurately said about all these attempts---I made an unholy botch of every last one of them. ... [The] divorces, in every last instance, made utter good sense all the way round. At least three of these ex-venturers are still friends of mine." Shaw had two sons from two of his marriages, although neither child had a relationship with him, even in their adult years.

In his musical career and other endeavors, the drive that propelled Shaw toward his ideals also served to push 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."

After he gave up music, Shaw turned to writing and dabbled in other ventures. In addition to his 1952 memoir, he also wrote two collections of short stories and an unpublished roman a clef. "Most of his latter-day energies went into a monstrously long, still-unpublished autobiographical novel called The Education of Albie Snow," wrote Teachout. "It may well be that this book, should it ever become available, will shed light on the peculiarities of temperament that led him to put down his horn."

Of Shaw's writing ventures, Jerry Jerome, who played with Shaw, remarked, "I still wonder whether part of it wasn't just some need to see himself as above being just a musician. He didn't want to be on the plane of ordinary people; he wanted to be an intellectual, in the worst way." Shaw read voraciously and reportedly hungered for knowledge with fervor. He reportedly said that he had always longed to be a writer, but being a musician was the singular result of his talent, which ultimately made him a good living.

Looking Back

Shaw assembled a box set of his collected recordings in 2001. "A lot of the music that bands like mine were playing 50 or 60 years ago was functional: people danced to it," he wrote in the liner notes. "I certainly had no idea that a half-century later people would think of it as 'concert' music. Or just music, period. ... At some point---probably while I was in the Navy, as a result of seeing the way those men reacted to our music---it began to dawn on me that whether I realized it or not I'd created a good-sized chunk of durable Americana. Something lasting."

Shaw's last notable appearance was in a multi-part documentary on jazz, produced for public television by Ken Burns. His apparent final interview was with Tamara Conniff, co-executive editor of Billboard and daughter of the late Ray Conniff, who had played with and been an arranger for Shaw. Shaw told her he had no regrets. "I look back at my life, and I have no regrets. I can't think of anything I did that I'm sorry about. It was what I had to do then. Would I do that now? No. I'm no longer that guy. But what I did was what I wanted to do."

Shaw died December 30, 2004, at his home in Newbury Park, California. He had long suffered from diabetes; his health reportedly began deteriorating after he suffered a broken leg. After his death, Johnson offered a more logical reason for Shaw's abrupt retirement. "I think he was having teeth problems," he told the Providence Journal. Teeth are an important part of creating the sound in a reed instrument such as the clarinet, and Johnson said he had noticed that Shaw's sound changed in his later years. "You don't have what you have today, to be able to save everything. ... So I think he had some [teeth] out, and he just never told anybody."

Shaw 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 noted, and left a musical legacy stained by "the richness of what was, the wistfulness of what might have been." Schuller concluded that Shaw's personal sense of unattainable achievement should not dim his place in history: "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 him forever in highest esteem."

by Rob Nagel and Linda Dailey Paulson

Artie Shaw's Career

Toured with various bands and orchestras, 1925-31; freelance 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; after 1954, pursued various activities, including film and theater production, college and university lecturing, and writing; organized a band bearing his name that he infrequently conducted, 1983; subject of Academy Award-winning documentary Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got, 1986.

Artie Shaw's Awards

Various awards include National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Award, for "Begin the Beguine" and "Star Dust," 1977; American Society of Music Arrangers Presidential Award, 1990; Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1996; Smithsonian Institution James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, 2003; National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, 2005 (posthumous).

Famous Works

Further Reading

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 5 years ago

Rediscovered the music of Artie Shaw a couple of months ago...I was always a fan... Halfway through reading The Trouble with Cinderella...He comes across as a sad person...doesn't seem to be the difficult person he was alleged to be..... No one can equal Artie Shaw's playing the clarinet...He puts so much emotion/feeling into every note.... Totally understand that he was married 8 times: he was good looking and the way he played the clarinet, would make him totally irresistible....at least in my opinion.....

over 8 years ago

Thank you for an illuminating overview of a misunderstood,frequently overlooked, musical genius.