Shaw, Artie 1910-2004

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SHAW, Artie 1910-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born May 23, 1910, in New York, NY; died December 30, 2004, in Newbury Park, CA. Musician, composer, band leader, and author. Shaw was an accomplished Swing Era clarinetist and famous band leader from the 1930s through the early 1950s. Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, he was the son of European immigrants. As a child, he had an early interest in music, first learning to play the ukulele before teaching himself the saxophone. Forming his first band while still in high school, he was hired by band director Johnny Cavallaro when he was just fifteen years old and changed his name to the easier-to-pronounce Shaw. After learning to sight-read music, he took up playing the clarinet, abandoning the sax altogether for what would become his signature instrument. He toured the country during the late 1920s and then became a staff musician at CBS from 1931 until 1934. Around this time, Shaw became comfortably well off and began to take an active interest in literature. He started to yearn for a writer's life over a musician's and quit his job in order to write a biography of his idol Bix Beiderbecke. Writing, however, proved difficult, and Shaw returned to New York City, where he formed his own band. It was during this time that he wrote "Interlude in B-Flat," which became his first big hit. After an unsuccessful attempt to form a popular string orchestra in 1935, Shaw organized his next swing band, which became known as Artie Shaw and His Orchestra. This group came to prominence with the 1938 hit "Begin the Beguine" by Cole Porter. Despite his popularity, the clarinetist and band leader still fostered a contempt for live performances and felt that audiences somehow would get between him and his music. Swearing he would abandon music again in 1939, he nevertheless returned to it while in Mexico. He recorded another hit, "Frenesi," for the Fred Astaire movie Second Chorus. Another popular recording, "Stardust," would appear the next year. Shaw was back on tour until 1942, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a mine-sweeper; he also led two bands while in the service. The musician would later say his war experiences changed him forever. After the war, he returned to his band, but at a time when Swing was fading in popularity. What has become known as Shaw's 1949 band was most noted for its recording of "'S Wonderful." His last band was the Gramercy Five. Interestingly, the music that group recorded in 1954 was not released for more than thirty years. Finally making good on his promise to quit his music career in 1954, Shaw turned to writing. He published the autobiographical The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity in 1952, two collections of novellas and short stories titled I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead: Three Variations on a Theme (1965) and The Best of Intentions and Other Stories (1989), and the novel The Education of Albie Snow (1990). However, compared to his talent as a musician, critics and audiences were less than overwhelmed by Shaw's writing skills. Shaw saw interest in his music resurge in the 1980s, and a 1985 documentary was made about his life that won an Academy award. A 2003 retrospective of his work, Self Portrait, was nominated for a Grammy the same year the artist donated two of his clarinets to the Smithsonian Institute. In addition to his music, Shaw's other, somewhat infamous, claim to fame was his propensity for marriage, including unions to actresses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner; all eight marriages ended in divorce. Despite his ambivalent feelings about his life in music, Shaw earned a place in the pantheon of American Swing music that will likely endure for generations to come.



Chicago Tribune, December 31, 2004, section 1, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2004, pp. A1, A20-A21.

New York Times, December 31, 2004, p. A22.

Times (London, England), January 1, 2005, p. 57.