With Retirement Out of His System, Artie Shaw, Minus Clarinet, Finally Lets Them Begin the Beguine Again

updated 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Artie Shaw: Benny, you're too hung up on the clarinet.
Benny Goodman: What the hell are you talking about?
That's what we play, isn't it?
Shaw: No, I've been trying to play music.

Artie Shaw, who once had everything and hated most of it, is back trying to make music after an absence of 30 years, and it is very hard to figure out why. It's surely not nostalgia: Shaw once called the band business a dung heap and complains of his classic, Begin the Beguine: "It's been chasing me around like a trained dog since the day I recorded it." Money isn't the reason either: At 74, he has enough of that to call it "just a way to keep score." He can't be motivated by love of the clarinet: He hasn't performed with it since 1954 and has left playing it in this band to Dick Johnson, while he sticks to bandleading. And he certainly isn't after fame or acclaim: Shaw hates crowds; in 1938, 18 months after becoming the hottest musician in the country, he walked off a bandstand and wound up in Mexico for six months, moving Duke Ellington to say enviously, "Man, you've got more guts than any of us."

Yet here we are, ladies and gentlemen, in the not-quite-full auditorium of Brockton (Mass.) High School, and here again is the Artie Shaw Orchestra, 17 strong, playing his famous arrangements of Begin the Beguine and Lady Be Good, as well as more modern stuff. Out there is a sea of gray heads—folks who once howled and screamed and now are going "Ohh" at each title, in a mass sexagenarian equivalent of a swoon, if not worse. The next night there are maybe 500 at a dance at Caruso's in Saugus, Mass., where they nail him sipping soda at the bar to say:

"We heard you in Andover, in 1938. We danced to Begin the Beguine."

"Wallingford, New Zealand, 1943?"

"The first record I ever bought was Octaroon."

—and force Artie Shaw, grimly, to give autographs.

Artie isn't keen on dances. "You can dance to a windshield wiper, you know," he says. And he loathes repetition—he quit at least five times because the public wouldn't let him progress, and two years ago, crying "Ridiculous!" he stormed out of a concert by Harry James, who was playing old favorites. So, why? Why? Why on earth, why?

"I'm not making invidious comparisons, but if Mozart's Figaro is good now, why the hell shouldn't my Summertime be good now?" Artie Shaw is saying. Still, you can get his record of Summertime, and in the next breath he says, "I don't want clones. I want it to the point where when a guy plays a solo, it isn't what I expected." Being back on the road, he says, makes him feel "like Rip Van Winkle plus a decade," and then, a seeker of excellence, he is talking about falling standards. Hertz no longer delivers cars. Not only that, but the hotel barber is now a stylist and gives mere haircuts only in the morning. Not only that, he says incredulously, but "I called room service and asked for toast with butter, and the woman said, 'I'm sorry, sir, we don't butter toast.' 'What's happening?' I said. 'I'm in the Copley Plaza, maybe the best hotel in the world, and we don't butter toast?' We're progressing sideways or backwards."

That night, as the band mills into Caruso's, a Benny Goodman record blares from loudspeakers.

"Is that you, Artie?" trombonist Bert Strandberg asks, grinning.

"If that was me, I'd kill myself," Artie Shaw says, and sets about getting the band platforms right.

"If Van Gogh were alive, he'd be a millionaire," Shaw likes to say, meaning that greatness will out, but maybe not during one's lifetime. When a critic recently told him that his Stardust is a classic, he snorted, "I knew that the' day I made it. Blake had a great line: 'How can anyone be a genius and not know it?' How can I create a classic and not know it?" Benny Goodman, from whom he is estranged, once said of his Quintet in A Major, "I heard that Mozart thing of yours. Not bad."

"It wasn't meant to be," Shaw said.

But Artie Shaw isn't the only one who esteems his music and finds it revolutionary. His Concerto for Clarinet ends on a C above high C, which, he maintains, "is a note nobody ever used before, publicly." Dick Johnson says that learning Shaw's music "is a lesson in itself. If you can play 15 of Artie's solos, you've got to be some kind of a clarinet player right there, case closed. I'll change that. If you can play his Stardust and Lady Be Good, you're some kind of clarinet player.

"A guy in the band has a nice line about Artie's music," Johnson adds. "He says, 'Pretty good for 1992.' "

But Artie Shaw has his doubts about 1984. "Willard Alexander, the agent, kept talking to me for nine years about forming a band," he says. "I was convinced there was no audience for this. I'm not yet convinced that there is. I see Mick Jagger in an outdoor arena of maybe 50,000 people. You saw what we drew last night. I keep asking, 'Where are the young ones?' I've said we'll play high schools for very low money, because it's the kids I want."

Artie Shaw, a perfectionist always ahead of his time, has put himself in the odd position of seeming both behind and ahead of his time. Why?

"Playing music and being the big success I was—I was probably the most successful of that group of people in terms of money, audience acclaim, all that—it gave me about 40 percent of the good life," Artie Shaw is explaining, for the umpteenth time. "Nobody gets 100. I was missing 60. I thought, well, if I give up the 40, I got a shot at the 60. So I went for the 60. It's only good arithmetic. I found about 58 or 55. Nobody gets much more than that. I think it was a fair trade."

Arthur Arshawsky was born an only child and poor on Manhattan's Lower East Side, an area so polyglot he didn't know he was Jewish. When he was 6 years old, his family moved to New Haven, a city of so few Jews he suddenly found himself called "kike," "sheeny" and "Christ killer." He once told Johnny Carson, "My ambition was to grow up to be a gentile. And I made it." He discovered music as a way out when a man in a blazer knelt at the footlights of Poli's Palace in New Haven and played Dreamy Melody on a shiny gold sax. Artie earned the money to buy a sax for himself, formed the Peter Pan Novelty Orchestra with three pals and got hired by a dance band just after he turned 15. "My first pair of long pants," he says, "was a tuxedo." Quitting school, he switched to the clarinet and worked his way up to Cleveland, then Hollywood and, at 20, to the CBS Orchestra in Manhattan, vowing that one day the whole city would know him. One night in 1936, by then calling himself Art Shaw, he led a pickup group as one act in a benefit at the Imperial Theater and introduced his Interlude in B-flat, which brought down the house. He was so astonished he didn't know what to do until a fellow in the wings hollered a lesson he never did really learn: "Thank 'em—tell 'em thanks!"

Because of that triumph an agent invited him to form a band. A year later, in 1938, he cut his first record and became Artie Shaw because, a Bluebird executive observed, if you said "Art Shaw" fast, it sounded like a sneeze. The side he had hopes for was Indian Love Call; the other, done in an unconventionally slow, quiet way, was a flop song from a flop musical: Begin the Beguine. When it came out, Artie Shaw became overnight the hottest musician in the land. He ran into Beguine's composer soon afterward, and Cole Porter said, "I'm glad to meet my collaborator."

After Shaw dropped out in Mexico a few months later, his next record was Frenesi, which introduced a string section to swing, changed every big band going and made him hate what he calls "the Artie Shaw business" even more. The day Pearl Harbor was attacked he gave his band two weeks' notice, and for the next two years played the Pacific war zone before collapsing mentally and physically and being discharged. For the next 10 years Artie put together more innovative bands playing mostly for records, and in 1954, after cutting 16 songs he has only this year allowed Book-of-the-Month Club Records to release, quit for good.

But he had largely quit before then: He had turned to writing and running a farm in Upstate New York, paying for his tractors by doing TV game shows until, in 1953, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had gone to four Communist meetings in 1946 before judging the party totalitarian, and the game shows immediately stopped phoning. Shaw asked a friend, the agent William Morris, to check out his standing. "He told me, 'As far as I now know, you will never work in prime-time television again.' " And, says Shaw, "I never have." He sold his cows and headed for Spain; after six years there he moved to Connecticut and since 1973 has lived in Newbury, Calif.—"pickup country." Along the way he has written an autobiography, a novel, 1,250 pages of a fiction "trilogy or tetralogy," taught extension courses on the Swing Era at the University of California at Santa Barbara, collected his royalties, become a crack rifle shot and "got into a lot of stupid adventures, some of them called marriages." There were eight of those, including unions with Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, writer Kathleen (Forever Amber) Winsor, Jerome Kern's daughter Elizabeth and actress Evelyn Keyes, whom he has not yet divorced. He has two sons he rarely sees, and now lives with Jennifer Carey, 28, a dancer and flutist. He seldom talks about his wives, although he is friendly with many of them, but does offer an explanation for their number:

"You go to a party and there's Ava Gardner, and she likes you, you're going to say no?" Two incorrect rumors: 1. Artie Shaw made his clarinet into a lamp; 2. he quit playing in 1954.

The clarinet lamp is one he gave away, and it was returned that way as a joke. "If I ever get the right young guy, I'll give him one of the three instruments I still have," he says. "They're the distillation of 20 years' search for the perfect clarinet. There ain't no such thing, of course." And he plays all the time, figuratively, fingering the air even while driving. "Forty years of playing the horn, it's a tic," he explains. "My girl will ask, 'What're you playing?' 'Some Mozart.' "

A partial list of people and subjects Artie Shaw talked about during a few hours recently:

Sinclair Lewis, Fats Waller, Ernest Hemingway, Plato, William Blake, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote (at whose memorial service Shaw spoke), Gabriel García Márquez' 100 Years of Solitude, Judy Garland, Snoozer Quinn, Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Spanish bread, Babe Ruth, Stradivarius violins, English leather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joe Louis, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, bluefish, Louis Armstrong, El Greco, John Barrymore and Arthur Quiller-Couch, the English essayist of whom he said, "Oh, he's a bitch, man. He's marvelous."

When you ask Artie where he studied, he answers, "With the guy next to me." This began when he was a musician of 15 and the guy next to him was a vet of 20 who told him, "Hey, kid, whenever you see a lot of 16th notes coming up, slow down." (A 16th note is very fast.)

"That's a helluva lesson," Shaw says. "Fine athletes and fine musicians recognize that there's a lot of space and time around something most people think is going fast. If you can surround that note with a lot of time, all you're doing is speeding up your perceptions." On to Joe Louis. "Marvelous guy. I got to know him. I'm always watching athletes because it's a good way to see what an artist is doing. I went to the Louis-Baer fight, and all of a sudden Max is lying on the canvas and he's bleeding. I couldn't see the punch. Well, of course I couldn't see it. Max couldn't see it, and he's closer and he's looking harder. So I thought, well, what the hell is it Louis does? Afterward there was a party, and I asked Jack Blackburn, his trainer. So Blackburn said, 'Well, Joe has fast eyes.' I said, 'What do you mean, fast eyes?' 'He see fast.' So he put a 78 record on the turntable, and he said, 'Joe, read the title'—the light wasn't much better than right here. And Joe read the title. Then he said, 'Read the composer,' and Joe read the composer. And he read the little print, 'Licensed for home use blah-blah-blah.' The perception time between seeing and registering in his brain was faster than most people's."

There are two limitations on Artie Shaw's own quest for art. "You know Lenin's old line, 'Walk at the head of the parade but not too far ahead,' " he says. "Because, you know, you'll go straight and they'll turn the corner." The other is even more discouraging: "The closer an artist gets to perfection, the further up his idea of perfection is, so he's chasing a receding horizon."

Of course, Arthur Arshawsky didn't know any of that. "What happened was a sense of power," Artie recalls. "You're a little kid of 14 or 15, you're in a group, playing at somebody's linen shower or something, and people dance. You see 200 people and you say, 'Hey, I control that. If I stop, they'll stop.' All right, so that's fun. Then they clap and you like that. Then you start getting into the thing called music and you learn there are endless vistas ahead of you. That happened about the time I was 19. Then I learned how to arrange. Then I began to hear Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and cats like that, and I began to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, there's a lot to this stuff I may never learn.' And that was the time it became apparent to me that it was what you may want to call an art form." He can't stand lower standards. "Glenn Miller was very methodical—Lawrence Welk," he says impatiently, "he didn't sweat. Too mechanical. A Republican musician. If music doesn't have an element of improvisation, it's not worth listening to."

But he knows there are limits to standards, too. After an indignant spiel ranging all the way from a denunciation of a slovenly waitress—"School of Indifference, she graduated from that school"—to his belief that the young don't know all they should about Hitler, Artie Shaw stops short. "The Ancient Mariner, grabbing people by the lapels," he rebukes himself. "No good. Nobody's listening."

But it passes, and now he's deploring music videos. "That's the biggest mistake the rock era has brought in—the noise and showbiz have crowded out the music," he says. Did the Beatles, maybe, start all that? "Nothing starts anything," he says, not being big on blame. "Maybe Palestrina started it. Gregorian monks. The first time a cricket made a noise. Who knows?"

And then Artie Shaw says this:

"The minute you open the door to abstract art, you've opened the door to charlatanism. The artist can tell the difference, but how's the public going to know? In jazz"—he is making two rising curves in the air, one representing public taste—"Leadbelly started out way down here, below the audience, and then jazz got more and more complex." The Leadbelly line rises faster. "Where the curves meet, you have a thing called the Big Band Era. The best the jazz guy can do is meet exactly the taste of the public, and they're screaming 'More, more, more.' That's only happened once in the history of art—about the 16th century, with painters. Then all of a sudden the jazz guys are going out of sight, and the audience is saying, 'Where's the melody?'—and over at the other end is Lawrence Welk. There's the melody."

And suddenly there is Artie Shaw's reason why. He is doing this, isn't he, not only as a musician, as in the past, but as an educator and enlightener.

"Yeah," Artie Shaw says quietly—quietly—"that's why I do it. The artist is an illuminator, tries to shine light into dark corners, and I don't know if it's going to work but that's what I do. That's my whole kick in this. If there's money, it means there's an audience. If there isn't money, it means we're not getting an audience. And if we're not getting an audience, I'm in the wrong pew."

The young doorman at the Copley Plaza, where they don't butter toast, opens a taxi door and asks his friend, the cabbie, "You know who this is?"

"Sure," the black cabbie says pleasantly. "It's the captain."

"This is Artie Shaw," the doorman says, grinning.

"You Artie?" cries the cabbie, his face suddenly erupting in awe and decades of delight. "God love you!"

Artie Shaw and Arthur Arshawsky simply smile and walk into the hotel together, while from the wings, backstage at the Imperial, the fellow calls, "Thank 'em, Artie—tell 'em thanks!" Ah, but doesn't he know crusaders don't have time to tip their hats?

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