Speaking of Artie Shaw (some of whose best recordings are collected on an excellent new CD called Centennial Collection), here’s a piece I wrote about him for the New York Times on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in 2000. I forgot to include it in A Terry Teachout Reader, but I like it anyway, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.
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H.L. Mencken once suggested that in a well-run universe, everybody would have two lives, “one for observing and studying the world, and the other for formulating and setting down his conclusions about it.” This is more or less the way that the clarinetist Artie Shaw, who turns 90 on Tuesday, has contrived to arrange things. In the first half of his long, spectacularly eventful life, he played jazz with Bix Beiderbecke and Mozart with Leonard Bernstein; married Lana Turner and Ava Gardner; made a movie with Fred Astaire; and was interrogated about his left-wing ties by Joe McCarthy. Then, at the age of 44, he stopped playing music and started writing fiction, eventually producing a monstrously long autobiographical novel called “The Education of Albie Snow.”
Though only a single chapter has seen print, Mr. Shaw’s magnum opus really does exist, and presumably will be published sooner or later, in some form or other. (Robert Altman says he wants to turn it into a movie, with Johnny Depp in the title role.) Still, it is unlikely that his second career as a writer will overshadow his previous career as a musician. In part because he became a pop-culture icon at the age of 28, he has never been properly acknowledged as a giant of jazz–except by his fellow musicians. Yet his recordings leave no possible doubt of his immense stature, as both virtuoso soloist and nonpareil bandleader.
Alas, much of Mr. Shaw’s achievement must now be taken on faith, for most of his records are out of print, and no label has gone to the trouble of commemorating his 90th birthday. BMG, which owns the 78s he made between 1938 and 1945, has no plans to release a retrospective boxed set, and the only tribute thus far has been the publication of Vladimir Simosko’s Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography (Scarecrow Press), a dry but thorough survey of his musical career. Mr. Shaw can hardly be surprised by this lack of interest in a legendary veteran of the swing era, since he has spent much of his life decrying the commercialism of the pop-music industry–even though he also spent the better part of three decades playing “commercial” music, and profiting handsomely by it.
Mr. Shaw’s first big band was an ensemble of unorthodox instrumentation (it included a string quartet) whose failure inspired him to change musical directions and organize what he called “the loudest goddamn band in the world.” He then struck it rich in 1938 with a crisp, incisive recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” that made him a superstar virtually overnight. For all his oft-expressed contempt of commercialism, he had a knack for making good music that pleased the public–a knack with which he would never come to terms–and the “Beguine” band, which featured the superlative singing of Billie Holiday and Helen Forrest, the fiery drumming of the 21-year-old Buddy Rich and a saxophone section that played with breathtaking fluidity and grace, was an incomparable dance band, by turns lyrical and galvanizingly hot.
Mr. Shaw himself wrote many of the band’s lucid, transparent arrangements, whose simplicity was deliberately intended to appeal to a mass audience, but which had the paradoxical effect of providing an ideal background for his richly elaborate improvisations. His intense, saxophone-like tone was sharply focused but never shrill, even when he was cavorting in the instrument’s highest register, and his blues solos were tinged with an exotic modal color suggestive of synagogue chant.
A self-made intellectual manqu