Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Written by Arnie Koch
To say Artie Shaw had “an eye for talent” is an understatement. Just look at the band’s alumni: Georgie Auld, Ray Conniff, Buddy Rich, Davey Tough, Maxie Kaminsky, Cliff Leeman, Hot Lips Page, Lee Castle, Ray Conniff, Dodo Marmarosa, Barney Kessel, Claude Thornhill, Roy Eldridge, Sam Donahue, Billy Butterfield, Jack Jenney, Tony Pastor, and Geoge Wettling. Shaw preferred instrumental music over vocal. His 12 gold records had no vocals. “I don’t carry about opera,” he once said. “I’m very interested in what comes out of a series of instruments.” He may not have appreciated vocalists, but he knew how to pick ‘em including: Mel Torme, Kitty Kalen, Helen Forrest, Georgia Gibbs, and Billie Holiday. Disgruntled with the Dorsey band, Frank Sinatra once asked Shaw if he would like to hire a male singer. Shaw replied that he had to have a girl singer. “I don’t like male singers”, he added. The turn down began a lifetime of antagonism between the two. As Shaw saw it, “Frank was jealous that I was there first with Lana and Ava.”
It was at the band’s home base at The Roseland-State in Boston in the late 30’s that “Begin the Bequine” was arranged by Jerry Gray. It had a hard intro that Shaw wanted “to get the attention of the dancers.” While there, the memorable “Any Old TIme” was recorded by Billie Holiday. Shaw was the first to hire a full time black singer. Billie was with the band for nine months and left because of problems with southern audiences. A young Helen Forest had shared the bandstand and remembered Billie telling Artie, “Why don’t you let that child sing some more ? Go ahead and make her some arrangements.” When Shaw enlisted in 1942, he was able to form a band that included Davey Tough, Claude Thornhill, Max Kaminsky and Sam Donahue. He was allowed to play in several battle zones in the Pacific. The band survived seventeen Japanese bombing attacks that tried to hit the warships they were traveling on from island to island. In 1954, Shaw stopped playing the clarinet and retired to run a dairy farm. Citing his own problem with perfectionism, which, he later said, would have killed him. He explained to a reporter, “In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last. You have to be Lawrence Welk, or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I’m not able to do that. I have taken the clarinet as far as anyone can possibly go. To continue playing would be a disservice.” He spent the rest of the 1950s living in Europe. Shaw himself guest conducted from time to time, ending his self-imposed retirement.
In 1981, he organized a new Artie Shaw Band with clarinetist Dick Johnson as bandleader and soloist. Amanda Carr, ABBPS founder, sang with the orchestra a number of times. Dick’s son, Gary, backed Amanda on drums at an engagement at Sculler’s near Boston. “He is on my very short list of tasteful drummers who can keep time, “ says Amanda. On the evening of March 16, 1984, my wife and I were at the Boston Park Plaza to enjoy the music of the “new” Artie Shaw Orchestra led by Dick Johnson. Artie, at age 84, conducted the first set. He reminded the crowd that it was in Boston at the Roseland-State that he launched his first band in 1937.
In an interview with Boston Globe columnist, Ernie Santosuosso, Shaw commented: “There is nothing more useless than a band that’s not working. I’m always asked if big bands are coming back. Sure they are, next football season. Today, with tons of electrical gear on stage, three musicians can make the same noise that 100 used to, so why have a big band ? We recorded ‘Stardust’ in one take. I’d like to see Fleetwood Mac match that.” Shaw was married eight times. Perhaps that’s why his theme song was called “Nightmare”. References: “The Big Bands”, George T. Simon; “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz”; “Tommy Dorsey”, Peter J. Levinson; “Swing, Swing, Swing”, Ross Firestone. On YouTube, there are segments of the Academy Award winning documentary on Shaw called “Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got”.