Let’s get a jump on the birthday of legendary jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his birth; it would have been his ninety-seventh birthday. I didn’t know Shaw’s Swing Era big-band music well enough to say anything intelligent about him on his passing in December 2004, though I was familiar with The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity, his thoughtful, somewhat evasive autobiography. (Which is not to say he didn’t nail the trouble with Cinderella — “nobody ever lives happily ever after.”) Shaw also appears like a motif in Richard Sudhalter’s monumental Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945.
On the occasion of his death the Wall Street Journal carried a memorable retrospective on Shaw by Tom Nolan, “Ends the Beguine: Remembering Artie Shaw” (unfortunately unavailable online). The headline of course referred to Shaw’s 1938 smash version of the Cole Porter classic. Nolan interviewed Shaw on several occasions and recalled a few highlights:
Of Glenn Miller, he’d said in a record review and, later, in conversation: “It would have been better if Glenn had lived, and his music had died.”
Of Igor Stravinsky he said to me: “Stravinsky didn’t know a God-damned thing about jazz. Called it a ‘passing fad.’ Some fad! It’s still around.”
Not that Artie Shaw was much pleased with what passed for jazz music in his later years: “Everything is so ugly now,” he said. “I don’t know what happened, with that music. It’s political, it’s angry — anything but musical. Where is it written that music should be unpleasant? Life is.”
He had quick access to his emotions as well as to his memories. Tears came to his eyes as he recalled his final visit with Ella Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 and whom he said he loved as an artist and a person: “She was sitting in a wheelchair; she said, ‘Wait, I’ll see you to the door.’ Her nurse and I had to grab her; she’d have fallen right on the floor. The diabetes had gotten so bad, they’d had to cut off her legs. But she started to get up. Complete denial.”
He laughed happily at the memory of Ray Charles coming to visit him one day in Newbury Park: “He was all over me! What a guy! ‘Why aren’t you playin’, man?’ He was sittin’ there, practically in my lap. Mostly he talked about why I should be playing. I couldn’t make him understand that I — I didn’t have anything more to say. I said, ‘I did all the things I was trying to do; and I got to a place where I said, well, if I keep this up, I’ll die.’ It was too much. It’s a strain on you. You’re trying to achieve beyond what you’re supposed to achieve.”
Surely Mr. Shaw got farther than most: improvising solos of incomparable beauty — such as his 1954 Gramercy 5 recording of “Yesterdays,” his 1953 cadenza to “These Foolish Things,” or his euphoric 1941 radio-broadcast version of “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” — in which he often sounded less like a man playing an instrument of wood and metal than a bird in flight, a tree moving in the wind, a sailboat skimming the water.
He often told interviewers of the two epitaphs he’d penned for Who’s Who, the first being, “He did the best he could with the materials at hand,” the second being, “Go away.” Less-often quoted was a line he said summed up his personal philosophy: “Leave things a little better than you found them.”
Anyone who listens to Mr. Shaw’s music should have little doubt he added to the sum of the world’s goodness.
As deservedly high as was his own opinion of what he’d achieved musically, Mr. Shaw made no claims for having been a paragon of wisdom. “I must have been a bewildered guy,” he said earlier in 2004, looking back on a variety of missteps in his life: eight marriages that ended in divorce (or, in the first case, annulment), capricious career moves, songs he thought would be hits that weren’t. “I make big mistakes. Like I’ve said, I was wrong 80 percent of the time.
“But there was that 20 percent…”
Nolan referred in passing to Shaw’s eight marriages without mentioning any names. Shaw seems to have married the most beautiful women of his era, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner foremost among them. The Legends of Big Band Music History biography includes them as well as other items of interest. Related: My Standard column “Saying goodbye to a great one.”
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