This week on Riverwalk Jazz, Jim Cullum Jr. and the Band pay tribute to Artie Shaw, the only serious rival Benny Goodman had to his title as “The King of Swing." By the time he was 30, Shaw’s effortless clarinet solos, his innovative musical arrangements, and his unusual band instrumentation earned him a place in the pantheon of 20th-century jazz greats.
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To his dismay, his handsome good looks made Artie a matinee idol. Bobby-soxers screamed and begged for his autograph. But Shaw was an unwilling superstar. He was so ill-suited to fame that success drove him into early retirement. Before he finally left the music business for good in 1954, he’d turned his back on it several times, only to return and challenge his fans with yet more creative re-inventions of his music.
There are glimpses of his perfectionism in rare interviews he’s given over time. Speaking with writer Gary Giddins in the early ‘90s, Artie Shaw talked about meeting classical violinist Jascha Heifetz backstage after a concert. Shaw thought that Heifetz gave an astounding performance and congratulated him. The violinist said, “Really? ‘I thought I was a little off.’”
Shaw remarked to Giddins: “I realized that Heifetz was aiming at 100. He probably hit 94 regularly, so that night he only hit 93 and it bothered him. There’s not much difference but he can hear it. It’s the same with the clarinet. If you really play honestly, if you’re cursed with that, and you take even one day off, then you can’t hit 94. That’s why I quit.”
Artie Shaw lived for fifty years after leaving the music business. He took up writing and published a well-regarded memoir, The Trouble with Cinderella, and the novel I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead. Though he was a man with a variety of strong interests, from writing and painting to figure skating and sharpshooting, there is no doubt that Artie Shaw will be remembered for the music he created at the height of his powers, between the late 1930s and early ’50s.
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