The Trouble With Artie Shaw

Written by | Articles, jazz history, News

Back in New York, he landed an unusual recording date with one-armed trumpeter Wingy Manone. The mixed band included white musicians Bud Freeman on tenor sax, Shaw, and guitarist Frank Victor along with black bassist John Kirby, trombonist Dicky Wells, drummer Kaiser Marshall and—of all people—Jelly Roll Morton on piano. His prowess on the clarinet soon made him a welcome visitor on a number of important recording dates, including the Boswell Sisters and Billie Holiday (his solo breaks on No Regrets are still breathtaking to hear today), but he was restless and wanted to have his own band. Joe Helbock, the owner of the Onyx Club, had amateur nights in which local musicians would come and play a number or two: it was his way of auditioning new talent in front of a live audience to see how they did. Shaw hired a string quartet and wrote two numbers, which he played to great applause. The problem was, the audience wanted to hear another piece, but Shaw and his string had only rehearsed those two, so they played them again. Nonetheless, it helped to launch his career.

Before we go on, however, we need to look at Shaw’s use of strings, both in quartet form and, later, in his use of a larger string section in his big bands. Although he supposedly studied the scores of Bartók in the early 1930s, he apparently didn’t learn anything from them. As Gunther Schuller pointed out in his book The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, 1989)

As for the use of a string quartet, I’m sure that Shaw felt that he was integrating the strings—or at least trying to—into a jazz context…The problem is…how they are almost always used. The moments in jazz when strings were used contrapuntally, for example, or in fast-moving passages—something strings happen to be able to do extremely well—can probably be counted on one hand. The usual rudimentary block writing, alternating with lush melodic lines, all played in a tasteless style using excessive vibratos, slides, scoops, and other similarly banal effects, is bound to produce a soggy, syrupy result, And, of course, such writing has nothing to do with jazz.

Yet although proper use of strings in a jazz context was rare, they did exist on records, and some pretty famous ones at that which Shaw should have known about, specifically Paul Whiteman’s From Monday On and Whiteman Stomp (the latter arranged by the brilliant Don Redman). In 1938, the year Shaw organized “the loudest goddamn band in the world,” Whiteman had again returned to some really jazzy string writing with his “Swinging Strings” recordings for Decca, among them “Oh Lady Be Good” and “Liza.”

But Shaw never did learn this lesson. He was hired at a local dance hall and began playing with his string-based band, yet he wasn’t packing them in. One day the manager complained to him about the poor clientele. “How is that my fault?” Shaw asked, quite reasonably I would say. “I’m providing quality music—that’s my job.” He never forgot the manager’s answer:

Your problem is to get people in here. And if you want to take your pants down on that goddamn bandstand every night and take a crap up there, and if people’ll pay to come in here and see you do it—I’ll pay you to take a crap up there every night.

Thus did the sleek but anaemic-sounding strings give way to the blaring brass and smooth reed sounds of his successful swing band. Like his rival Goodman, Shaw was adept at editing the arrangements his band played to fall in line with what he wanted; unlike Goodman, Shaw could actually write full arrangements on his own, which he did for pieces he composed himself, among them Non-Stop Flight and Any Old Time. But he was wise enough to hire a young violinist-turned-arranger named Jerry Gray who really helped set the tone for the Shaw band with his sharp, clean-no-nonsense arrangements.

Shaw fronting his 1938 band

It has long been noted that just about the only piece Shaw wrote and arranged himself that had any resemblance to modern classical music was his theme song, Nightmare, which consists primarily of a repeated rising and falling four-note motif played by the trombones and a four-note theme played above it by trumpets, after which Shaw would come in on the clarinet and improvise. To a certain extent, it resembled some of the experimental jazz that Stan Kenton would get into in the mid-1940s, but its repetitive nature and lack of any real development other than Shaw’s clarinet solos really don’t make it much of a composition. It’s more like a gesture, albeit an ominous-sounding one, yet Shaw was inordinately proud of this piece. At one point, he likened it to Picasso’s painting of Guernica. I suppose that Nightmare does kind of evoke the images of Guernica for about eight bars, but that’s about it. Like so many things that Shaw considered real accomplishments of his, it was only half-formed. Some were even less than half-formed. Again, to quite Schuller:

The hard evidence of his actual work—his recordings and airchecks that have survived—when disentangled from all the post-facto rationalizations, self-analyses and protestations of one kind or another that seemed always to be a part of Shaw’s life—reveal that Shaw was seldom an accurate judge of his bands’ merits—or demerits. He was also apt to misjudge the nature of and reasons for his popular successes as well as for his failures. Moreover, the evidence shows that he found it difficult to distinguish between his arrangers’ contributions to his successes (and failures) and his own. He often took credit for achievements that belonged, at least to significant extents, to others—or, as in the case of some of his biggest commercial “hits,” to luck and chance as well.

Previous Next

Last modified: July 18, 2019