To recognize the 101st birthday anniversary of Artie Shaw, here’s a piece I wrote for Jazziz in 2002 in conjunction with his self-picked box set, SELF-PORTRAIT (RCA). Because of the allotted word length, I had to distill down two long phone interviews (I’ll save the raw transcripts, which are a hoot, for another occasion or forum).
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“Artie Shaw was to me the hippest clarinetist in that he played it straight. His ideas would come straight out. He didn’t sound like he was studying from the book.” – Wayne Shorter
“I would occasionally play for black audiences,” says Artie Shaw, hearkening back to the 1930s, when he became a mega-celebrity. “It was always very liberating. You could do anything you want. They were much hipper than white audiences, much more musically aware. That’s why Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb could get away with a lot that white bands couldn’t.
“Musically, we are an almost illiterate people. Audiences respond like apes; they get up and applaud after every solo, good or bad. The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity. Woody Herman would say, in the middle of the chorus, ‘And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, tell the audience to sit down and introduce the soloists one-by-one?’ He said, ‘Well, this is what they want.’ I said, ‘What about what you want?’ He couldn’t understand that. Or didn’t want to. It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example, if he wants any kind of dignified response. Can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza? But you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them. So you’ve got to face the fact that you have to give them what I call ‘three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.’”
Truculent and blunt, Shaw was never so cranky as to bite off the hand that fed him; now 92, out of the music business longer than he was in it, he pays the rent on royalties, residuals and investments from his glory years. Famously married to and divorced from actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Evelyn Keyes, to Jerome Kern’s daughter, and three other women, he continues to possess what market researchers call a high name recognition quotient. That’s why last year’s SELF-PORTRAIT [RCA] — a 5-CD retrospective for which Shaw cherrypicked 95 performances from his vast storehouse of studio and remote recordings — stirred up as much attention as it did.
During two lengthy phone conversations last April, Shaw was loath to discuss oft-trod biographical territory, referring me to his books The Trouble With Cinderella and The Best Of Intentions rather than talk about how he came to earn $175 a week with a mediocre dance band as a 17-year-old in 1927, what it was like to sit in with Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club in South Side Chicago and with Willie the Lion Smith and Billie Holiday at Pod & Jerry’s in Harlem, how he came to organize his first band, or the impact of his harrowing experiences during World War II. A staggeringly well-read autodidact and well-armoured misanthrope, he had plenty else to discuss. We excerpt the following comments.
“The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success. I sure had that for a while. And it was almost fatal. I lost my mind. I lost all sense of purpose. I didn’t know what I was doing any more. For the audience to stand up and applaud everything, how are you going to know what’s good or not? Then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality. When I came back to so-called civilization, I went into analysis, five days a week, every morning, on the couch. First I did it in California. When I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast! I went to Abram Kardiner, a very famous man, one of the early cultural anthropologists, who trained Margaret Mead, etc. You’d come in in the morning and he said, ‘What happened?’ You’d tell him. He’d say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ You’d say it, and he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not what you said.’ You’d go on and on, dissecting everything you thought. I learned a very important lesson. It can be summed up in three words. ‘Maybe it’s me.’
“I have a great distrust of authority. That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly. He called it a ‘blowzer.’ It means a blower, a thing you blow into. Like a kazoo. He classed it with nothing. And he made his contempt for it very plain to me. I’ve often thought since then, whenever some signal honor has been bestowed upon me, ‘If you were here, Pop, you’d learn what a blowser is.’ He was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor. His name was Arshawsky, and he came from Odessa. It took me fifty years to learn that. He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care. I have no regard for antecedents or precursors. I have no family sense. I feel as though I came out of whatever I came out of, and I managed to get to where I am in spite of anything. There’s a line I cherish that George Bernard Shaw said. He said, ‘Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.’
“I got my name ‘Shaw’ from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called Kidnapped, which I read when I was 7 or 8. Kidnapped had a man living in the House of Shaws. Shaw means a thicket of trees. So I took the name when I went into show-biz. When I decided to become a saxophone player and play in bands, it was easier to say ‘Art Shaw’ than Arthur Arshawsky. Plus, in those days there was a great deal of anti-semitism, just as there is today. But it was more overt in those days.
“I don’t know what being Jewish means. I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, I don’t believe in the stone tablets, I don’t believe in the Burning Bush, and I don’t believe in any of the myths. And I don’t know what it means to have a seder, because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting. I mean, why is this day different from any others? Well, Jesus, why is July 4th different? They’re all different. I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.
“I became Artie Shaw, and Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish. I was on the ‘Tonight Show’ one time, and the question came up: What did you want to be when you were young? What was your ambition? When it got to me, I said, ‘I wanted to grow up and be a gentile.’ And the audience cracked up, and so did the band. There were a lot of Jews in the band. And then, the laughter died down, and I said, ‘And I made it.’ It was like a big trick on the world, and I was the only guy who could laugh at it.
“I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other. My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children. Four 6-hour shifts, and that’s it. They’d be totally devoid of all this subjective, sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get with the average family. There’s no reason why a society can’t raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way.”
“I think there were about five great bands in those days — Goodman, me, Basie, Ellington and Lunceford. Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but they weren’t playing jazz. Lunceford at his best was awfully good. He had a lot of respect for what he did, and he imbued the men with that. And Ellington at times was very good. He was interesting, a very smart guy. But he’s been hyped. In the last ten years, he’s become like the avatar. The long form things he did weren’t long forms; they were just pastiche, a lot of short forms put together. But the audience bought it. The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead. When they were good, they were very good; when they were bad, they were horrid. He chose the personalities. It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write. It’s under a rubric. Sometimes Ellington’s rubric worked, other times it didn’t. When I quit, he said, ‘You’ve got more guts than any of us.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? You could do the same thing if you wanted.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do.’
“The band was my instrument; I played the clarinet with it. I tried to make the guys play better than they thought they could. I tried to be reasonable with them. But on the other hand, there’s an old saying, and I believe it’s true: Nothing of any lasting value is ever achieved by a reasonable man. I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road and be a good insurance man. But if you’re unreasonable, you’re quarreling with everything that is, and you’re going to make it better. We rehearsed all the time. If one guy did something wrong one night, I’d call a rehearsal the next night and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to fix that.’ The guys didn’t mind. They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.
“Like everything else, jazz has had a crescendo and a decrescendo. It was an efflorescence. We grew and grew and grew, we finally reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill. I was interviewed by a guy who was doing a book on Sinatra. At the end, he said, ‘Are you in agreement that he was a perfect symbol of the decadence of the last half of the century?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that says it very well.’ We took a plain, ordinary singer, a good singer, and we made him into an icon. We made him a crony of Presidents, and then when he couldn’t get along with the President because of his propensity for gangsters, he went to Spiro Agnew. He was a man with utterly no principle. That’s a form of decadence.
“When Ava was living with Sinatra, she asked me whether sex had been okay when we were together, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless. Later Ava developed this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man. So she’d make remarks like ‘he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.’ I know damn well that wasn’t true, because I’ve heard it from other women.
“Once I worked with Tony Bennett on a series of half-a-dozen concerts, the big tents, those great big musical extravaganza places. My orchestra was rehearsing with him, and after they did ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco,’ he came over to sit with me. He said, ‘The band is great’ and so on. I said, ‘Good, I’m glad you’re happy with it.’ Then I said, ‘Tony, what goes through your mind when you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?’ He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, that song expresses at most a meager philosophical statement. Don’t you ever get a little bored with it?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m very lucky. The audience…’ I said, ‘I’m not talking about money or success. I’m talking about your inner view.’ He didn’t have one. I began to realize that this guy was intent on singing, like Goodman was intent on the clarinet. The philosophical basis for this was totally lost. They were not aware that there was such a thing. I think it denotes a lack of depth to thinking. A surface view of life. Things are not what they seem, and it’s the duty of any person who pretends to be aware to try to understand what it really represents in its deepest sense. What does it say about the human condition? The point of the words ‘human condition’ I think is lost on a lot of people. Also, people use language so imprecisely that their thought is imprecise. We say ‘jazz.’ What are we talking about? What is it and what isn’t it? I mean, the name of the magazine, Jazziz. Jazz is what? It’s like saying ‘Bird Lives.’ Well, in that case, Beethoven lives. What they mean is some of the music lasts.
“Language is wiser than the people who use it. Language has been used for a long, long time by a number of people in different ways. We are the heirs to that, and if we use language precisely, we have a little better chance of making ourselves clear and making other people understand what we’re doing than if we use it sloppily, as people do. We have three languages. There’s the oral-verbal one. There’s music. And there’s mathematics. I don’t know of any others.”