Artie Shaw: his life and music

critical and illustrated biography – plus discography

As the handsome (and much-married) leader of a series of big bands and small groups in the 1930s and 1940s, clarinetist Artie Shaw achieved measures of fame and fortune that temporarily eclipsed those of his great rival, Benny Goodman. Shaw’s five top single recordings had sold over 65 million copies by 1965; by 1990 his total sales exceeded 100 million records. John White’s critical biographical study starts with an outline of Swing as a phenomenon of the 1930s and 1940s, then traces Shaw’s rise through countless small bands to fame as a leader in his own right. It takes in the jobbing years of the 1930s and the rise to stardom in the 1940s. And then at the height of his fame, suddenly feeling uncomfortable in the modernist phase of the 1950s, Shaw retired to Spain.

After five years he returned to the USA, and made a series of come-backs, then started writing fiction. It’s lucidly written account, fully annotated and referenced, and I particularly liked the fact that White puts the life of the musician into a socio-economic context – so we see what shaped the world of a professional musician. It’s a rich antidote to the romantic approach to jazz music criticism, which tends to be based on anecdotes and uncritical enthusiasm.

The narrative is punctuated by well-documented quotations from Shaw himself and other musicians. These often reinforce the precarious life of the professional jazz musician:

‘A cop in Boston arrested our Negro driver and tossed him into the can … We left our driver in jail, the truck in the police yard, and went on to our next stand by bus.’

What emerges is portrait of a complex, thoughtful man. He was obviously intellectually ambitious; he frequently dropped out of the music business altogether to pursue other interests; and he did finally achieve a moderate success as a writer. His autobiographical The Trouble with Cinderella is worth reading despite its often pretentious style.

Shaw was good on the race issue (first white band to have a black singer – Billie Holiday) not so good on the political issue (compromising with the Committee of Un-American Activities) and his personal life – well, let’s leave that to his eight ex-wives. These included women as glamorous as Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, despite the fact that he suffered from bad breath.

After the life, the book ends with two essays – an appreciation of his style and a study of his recordings. All of this made me want to hear more , and sure enough I did, when I put on a Mel Torme recording I bought recently. There, rising between choruses from The Velvet Fog, were fluid arpeggios from the master himself. He had technique, he had taste – and amazingly enough, he survived to the age of 95. In the world of jazz, that’s quite an achievement.

© Roy Johnson 2004

John White, Artie Shaw: his life and music, London: Continuum, 2004, pp.223, ISBN: 0826469159

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