See his autobiography (1952, repr. 1992); biographies by V. Simosko (2000) and J. White (2004); B. Berman, dir., Artie Shaw: Time is All You've Got (documentary film, 1985; Academy Award).
Arthur Jacob Arshawsky (May 23, 1910 – December 30, 2004), better known as Artie Shaw, was an American jazz clarinetist, composer, and bandleader. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest jazz clarinetists of his time. He is also the author of both fiction and non-fiction writings.
Shaw first gained critical acclaim with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York in 1935. During the Swing Era, Shaw's big band was popular with hits like "Begin the Beguine" (1938), "Stardust" (with a legendary trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield), "Back Bay Shuffle", "Moonglow", "Rosalie" and "Frenesi." He was an innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation; "Interlude in B-flat", where he was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed third stream.
In addition to hiring Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer. However, after recording "Any Old Time" she left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more mainstream singer. His band became enormously successful, and his playing was eventually recognized as equal to that of Benny Goodman: Longtime Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard cited Shaw as his favorite clarinet player. In response to Goodman's nickname, the "King of Swing", Shaw's fans dubbed him the "King of the Clarinet". Shaw, however, felt the titles were reversed. "Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music," he said.
Shaw did in fact prize innovation and exploration in music more highly than popular success and formulaic dance music, despite a string of hits which sold more than 100 million records. He fused jazz with classical music by adding strings to his arrangements, experimented with bebop, and formed "chamber jazz" groups which utilized such novel sounds as harpsichords or Afro-Cuban music.
The long series of musical groups Shaw formed included such talents as vocalists Billie Holiday, Helen Forrest and, Mel Tormé, drummers Buddy Rich and Dave Tough,guitarists Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Tal Farlow and trombonist-arranger Ray Conniff, among countless others. He composed the morose "Nightmare", with its Hassidic nuances, for his personal theme, rather than more approachable songs. In a televised interview of the 1970s, Shaw derided the often "asinine" songs that bands were compelled to play night after night. In 1994, he told Frank Prial (The New York Times), "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine.' "
Like Benny Goodman and other leaders of big bands, Shaw fashioned a small group from within the band. He named it the Gramercy Five after his home telephone exchange. The quintet's sound was set apart by band pianist Johnny Guarneri playing a harpsichord on the quintet recordings and Al Hendrickson playing an electric guitar. In time, the quintet would prove another of Shaw's breaking of racial boundaries, when trumpeter Roy Eldridge became part of the group, succeeding Billy Butterfield. The Gramercy Five's biggest hit was "Summit Ridge Drive" (Shaw's California address at the time). A CD of The Complete Gramercy Five sessions was released in 1990.
Throughout his career Shaw would take sabbaticals, quitting the music business. This included studying advanced mathematics, as cited in Karl Sabbagh's The Riemann Hypothesis. His first interregnum, at the height of his success, was met with disbelief by booking agents. They predicted that Shaw would not only be abandoning a million-dollar enterprise but that nightclub and theater owners would sue him for breach of contract. Shaw's offhand response was, "Tell 'em I'm insane. A nice, young American boy walking away from a million dollars, wouldn't you call that insane?"
In 1954, Shaw stopped playing the clarinet, citing his own 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." He spent the rest of the 1950s living in Europe.
In 1981, he organized a new Artie Shaw Band with clarinetist Dick Johnson as bandleader and soloist. Shaw himself would guest conduct from time to time, ending his self-imposed retirement.
After Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman interviewed Shaw, Hoagy Carmichael, Doc Cheatham and others for her documentary film Bix: Ain't None of Them Play LIke Him Yet (1981) about Bix Beiderbecke, she went on to create an Academy Award-winning documentary, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985), featuring her interviews with Shaw, Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé, Helen Forrest and others. Later in 2003, along with members of his original bands and other music professionals, Shaw was extensively interviewed by Russell Davies for the BBC Television documentary, Artie Shaw — Quest for Perfection, which became his last major interview.
In 1946, Shaw was present at a meeting of the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan, part of a core group of actors and artists who were trying to sway the organization away from communism, presented an anti-communist declaration which, if signed, was to run in newspapers. There was bedlam as many rose to champion the communist cause, and Artie Shaw began praising the democratic standards of the Soviet constitution. In 1953, Shaw was brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his leftist activities. The committee was investigating a peace activist organization, the World Peace Congress, which it considered a communist front.
He was a precision marksman, ranking fourth in the United States in 1962, as well as an expert fly fisherman. In his later years, Shaw lived and wrote in the Newbury Park section of Thousand Oaks, California. Shaw had long suffered from adult onset diabetes and finally died of complications of the disease at age 94. In 2005, Shaw's eighth wife, Evelyn Keyes, sued Shaw's estate, claiming that she was entitled to one-half of Shaw's estate pursuant to a contract to make a will between them. In July 2006, a Ventura, California jury unanimously held that Keyes was entitled to almost one-half of Shaw's estate, or $1,420,000.
Shaw did many big band remotes, and he was often heard from the Blue Room of New York's Hotel Lincoln. It was the location of his only regular radio series as headliner. Sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, Shaw broadcast on CBS from November 20, 1938 until November 14, 1939.
At the height of his popularity, Shaw reportedly earned $60,000 per week. For a comparison, George Burns and Gracie Allen, were each making US $5,000 per week during the year (1940-41) the Artie Shaw Orchestra provided the music for their radio show. He also acted on the show as a love interest for Gracie Allen and the sarcastic bandleader who had trouble with South American guitarist Señor Lee, who could not fully grasp English.
Many of his recordings have been used in motion pictures. His recording of "Stardust" was used in its entirety in the closing credits of the film "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Also, Martin Scorsese used the Shaw theme song, "Nightmare," in his Academy Award-winning Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.
He credited his time in the Navy as a period of renewed introspection. He entered psychoanalysis and began to pursue a writing career. His autobiography, The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity was published in 1952 (with later reprint editions in 1992 and 2001). Revealing downbeat elements of the music business, Shaw explained that "the trouble with Cinderella" is "nobody ever lives happily ever after." He turned to semi-autobiographical fiction with the three short novels in I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! (1965, reprinted in 1997), which prompted Terry Southern's comment: "Here is a deeply probing examination of the American marital scene. I flipped over it!" Shaw's short stories, including "Snow White in Harlem," were collected in The Best of Intentions and Other Stories (1989). He worked for years on his 1000-page autobiographical novel The Education of Albie Snow, but the three-volume work remains unpublished. Currently, through Curtis International Associates, the Artie Shaw Orchestra is still active.