The first time I was introduced to Artie Shaw's music was courtesy of an old cassette on the Laserlight label that I bought on a whim. I was instantly hooked. Dark and mysterious one minute, light and romantic the next, there's no better music for a dark and rainy summer night than jazz, - and few better practitioners of the art than Artie Shaw.
Shaw died last week at his home in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 94.
Even if you've never heard his music, you have to stand in awe of his life.
Born in 1910 to immigrant parents, by his early twenties Shaw was a well paid musician for CBS. Following his 'retirement' - the first of many - he formed his own orchestra. A cut of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguinne" spent six weeks on the charts in 1938, jumpstarting a career that would see him making a weekly five figure income in the 1940's.
In the next decades Shaw would record many hits: "Fresnesi", "Traffic Jam", "Back Bay Shuffle", "Moonglow", "Accent-tchu-ate the Positive", and his theme song, the brooding "Nightmare". Ranking with Goodman and Miller as leaders of the Big Band era, Shaw was one of the most popular entertainers of the time.
Too bad he hated the attention.
Shaw was an early version of the 'bad boys' of music, mourning the loss of his privacy and shunning autographs. At one point he labeled his jitterbug-happy fans "morons", which didn't go over to well with the people who bought his records.
"I could never understand why people wanted to dance to my music," he said. "I made it good enough to listen to."
Apparently he had just as volatile a relationship with his wives - all eight of them. The musician included in this harem beauties like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, And while it never led to marriage he once romanced Judy Garland (when he left her, she allegedly had her first mental breakdown).
In 1953 the avowed liberal was pulled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about communist ties. While he admitted attending several meetings, the WWII Navy veteran told the committee that he had never joined the party or donated money; he had simply gone out of curiosity and an interest in social justice.
Later that decade he left music for good. With a solid career and forty years of life behind him he embarked on yet another artistic venture: writing. In addition to an autobiography (albeit an autobiography that barely touches on his marriages) he wrote two short story collections, "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!" and "The Best of Intentions." Both were well received.
Yet his music remains his calling card. There are better known Big Band artists - how great would his reputation be if he hadn't pulled the plug himself! - but few were better. One of the most gifted clarinetists of all time, Shaw had started out playing the saxophone and only switched to the instrument in his late teens. With the clarinet, like everything in his life, success seemed to follow Artie Shaw around like one of his devoted fans.
But Shaw spent his life, in one way or another, running away from success. He formed bands, struck it rich, disbanded them and did it all again. He walked away from the business that made his fortune, and he failed to form a lifelong commitment to any woman he loved.
Perhaps that's the way it should be. Even with his flaws Shaw attained near perfection; anything more would‘ve been too much to believe.