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Artie Shaw at 100
I'm not here to please you
John Robert Brown

I once saw Artie Shaw, live! As Shaw retired completely from playing in 1954 I have to explain quickly that I wasn't out attending big band concerts sixty years ago. No, Shaw was performing as a speaker, not a player. And the occasion wasn't that long ago - it was a big jazz education conference in Long Beach, California, in January 2002.

Despite the attendance of Gary Burton, Dave Brubeck, Bob Florence, Frank Foster, Percy Heath, Quincy Jones, James Moody, Tom Scott, Billy Taylor, McCoy Tyner and many more jazz legends among the 7,000 delegates, Shaw's presence turned the conference into a memorable occasion. By then Shaw, approaching 92, used a wheeled zimmer frame and suffered from hearing loss. Nevertheless he was alert and articulate, had impressive memory, outstanding vocabulary, and offered wry observations and mordant opinions. Shaw spoke for the best part of an hour.

He began by informing a room packed with some of the world's top professional jazz educators that to teach jazz was impossible! "I'm here to tell you something that I don't think you're going to like too much," he said. "But I'm not here to please you. I'm here to talk to you about what I think. If you agree, you agree. If you don't, tant pis ('tough'), as the French say. I don't think that anybody can be taught to play jazz.

"You can't teach that," he said. "It's not something you can do. You can't teach somebody to ride a bicycle. He's got to get on the bicycle and ride it until he finds out what he has to do. With playing any instrument, if you want to play this idiom that we're calling jazz for shorthand, you cannot teach him. What you can do is encourage him when he's doing the right thing, discourage him when he's doing the wrong thing, and steer him toward the people he should listen to."

The audience laughed and applauded. They loved every minute. Yet there was a slightly strange aspect to Shaw's behaviour. Several times during that hour, when the audience chuckled I had the uneasy impression that they were laughing at Shaw, rather than with him. Remember that this was a friendly group, a gathering of musicians aware of Shaw's talents, who understood what he had achieved. Yet Shaw didn't seem to notice the reaction. Yes, he was old. True, he was slightly hard of hearing. Granted, he was trailing his coat. And admittedly I was an observer within the culture of North America, which is different from the UK. Was I misunderstanding what I saw? Or was I witnessing clues to the nature of the unusual character of Artie Shaw? I still don't know for certain. But I regard his behaviour that day, demonstrating a quasi weak sense of social interaction, as one of the clues to understanding Artie Shaw.

Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky on May 23rd 1910, for the first seven years of his life Artie Shaw lived on New York's Lower East Side. Financial problems then forced the family to move to New Haven, Connecticut where, after experiencing anti-semitism, he changed his name to Art Shaw. Later, Art became Artie, to coincide with the summer 1938 contract with RCA Victor records' Bluebird label. His 1952 biographical account The Trouble With Cinderella explains that one of the Victor executives decided that the name Art Shaw sounded rather like a fast sneeze. "When spoken rapidly it was difficult to tell whether the first name was supposed to be Art or Arch," he said.

Shaw began to learn the piano when he was in school, then took up the saxophone. He never completed his high school education, and never entered a full-time college course. At the age of 16 Shaw went to Cleveland, where he remained for three years, the last two working with Austin Wylie, then Cleveland's top band leader, for whom Shaw took over all the arranging and rehearsing chores.

Shaw was an autodidact. A vivid example of his resourceful manner of self-education is related in chapter sixteen of The Trouble With Cinderella. Shaw describes his first attempt at writing a band arrangement. No-one had told him about writing a score:

"I spread out all the parts on the floor of my living room, and got down on my hands and knees with a pencil (and an eraser), jotting down a few notes on one part, and crawling around until I located the part I wanted to go with it, and then the part to go with that, and so on until all twelve parts were more or less in accord. But of course I kept forgetting what I'd done on the third or fourth part by the time I'd come to the tenth or twelfth one, and this went on back and forth among all the parts, until finally, twelve or fifteen hours  later, I was completely pooped out, physically and mentally." When played, Shaw's arrangement was full of mistakes. Most arrangers will have sympathy with that tale. Experience is a dear school

The New York saxophonist and writer Loren Schoenberg recalls going out to California in the mid-1980s to interview Shaw. "We became friends," Schoenberg told me. "He became my literary mentor. He would say, 'You must read Lafcadio Hearn.' Schoenberg's relationship with Shaw was much more of an intellectual one than the relationship Schoenberg already had with Benny Goodman, who had employed Schoenberg from 1980 as his personal manager.

"When one reads The Trouble with Cinderella you find out that in Shaw's early twenties he became aware of his intellectual deficiencies and, as an autodidact, taught himself about reading," says Schoenberg. "But he also took courses at Columbia University in the early 1930s. Then, when he became famous, he got to know all the great writers. Because he was so smart he became a member of their circle. Eventually, as we all know, it was that writing career that usurped his musical career, twenty years later.

Schoenberg's testimony is of great value, for a problem with writing about Shaw is the lack of commentators who have a professional knowledge about music, bands, clarinets and jazz history. For example, Mike Zwerin, jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years, is an entertaining and articulate writer for whom I have respect. He holds down a very competitive position in the world of jazz journalism. Most of what he writes is enjoyable. But Zwerin (like several others) edges beyond his own expertise when writing about Shaw. The high note ending to Concerto for Clarinet Zwerin calls 'a cosmic high C.' That's untrue. It's just a common-or-garden high C, which Shaw plays beautifully, but no more than many conservatoire clarinet students and professional reed players can manage. Zwerin than asserts that 'Nobody else could play that note - he had invented the fingering himself.'  That's not true; many players can and do play that note. And concerning the fingering, don't take my word for it. Go into your local library, dig into a few clarinet method books, and you'll find fingerings for high C. All serious reed players are forced to invent their own high-note fingerings to cope with individual differences of reeds, mouthpieces and the instruments themselves. The great clarinettist Jack Brymer once told me that he knew 24 fingerings for top G alone.

When asked about Shaw's serious style of dealing with the Long Beach conference audience described above, Schoenberg is frank. "I was never an intimate friend of his," he says. "I was certainly never a peer of his, so I never saw him really laid back, having a drink and laughing. Artie, by his own definition, if you read the things he's written about himself, was a driven guy. I don't think he told jokes or anything like that. But that's what made him Artie Shaw. And what's fascinating about him is the improvisational style, his legato, flowing, harmonically adventurous. It would be fun at some point to contrast his approach to the clarinet and Goodman's. Their articulation is very different."

About the extreme high register playing, Schoenberg says: "Artie took it higher. Benny was much more a high-note goal man. The high note was a climax. With Shaw it was integrated. It's really fascinating. They were both taken with Lester Young early on, and the even phrasing of Beiderbecke and Trumbauer and Lester. Even before Shaw heard Lester Young, there is this big breakthrough in Artie Shaw, around 1936 and 1937.

"Hear him on those record dates in 1933 and 1934, with Red Norvo, those small group records he made at that time. There's a fascinating record date that never came out on 78, by Wingy Manone and his Orchestra. The personnel is Wingy Manone, Dickie Wells, Artie Shaw, Bud Freeman, two pianists - Teddy Wilson and Jelly Roll Morton. Then there's this big sea change. Artie gets his own band, that first band with the strings, in 1936. I love those records. By that point he had avowed pretty closely to this more even eighth-note approach, compared to Benny, who was much more dotted and swinging."

Shaw pursued many interests. After he left music he took up shooting, eventually to be ranked as the fourth-best precision rifleman in the United States. Shaw built a beautiful house on the coast at Bagur, in Spain, near to the French border. He took up fishing. He formed a film distribution company. He wrote fiction; in 1964 he published a trio of novellas under the collective title I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead. I have them on my shelves; they are unreadable. Writer Gene Lees expressed the truth: "Artie Shaw gave up being one of the most brilliant musicians ever, to become a second-rate writer."

A feature-length documentary by Canadian film-maker Brigitte Berman, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got, appeared in 1985, and ran twice on British Television. In 1987 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded it the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 1986. After the film won the award, Shaw sued Berman in the Canadian courts, claiming ownership of the film. He lost his case. The legal difficulties prevented the film's release between 1987 and Shaw's death in 2004. Having viewed the film many times, I can recommend it, if you can obtain a copy.

An impressive aspect of Shaw in old age was that he hadn't stopped listening. He was aware of current developments in the music. He said of Brad Mehldau, "He's a very good piano player."  On the training of an audience, he told the Long Beach delegates: "The first thing to do is to make the audience understand that this is music," he said. "If it's not music, I don't know what the hell we're talking about. Jazz is music, first, foremost and last. There's no such thing as jazz; it's music, it's American music and it's informal. So why do we have to call it jazz? Kenny G is called jazz."

The audience laughed. "Well, you're laughing," Shaw continued. "But if Kenny G were doing this lecture you couldn't get in this room. He has an enormous audience. I don't know what it is. It's basically elevator music. He plays the same thing over and over again. You might as well be a captive audience. I'm not knocking the guy. I don't think he knows what he's doing. But that has nothing to do with me. The audience buys it, in huge quantities. So we're back to what H.L. Mencken said: 'Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.'

"You cannot encourage stupidity. When you run into stupidity, it is your duty to say, 'That is stupid.' When an audience gets up and applauds a bad bass solo, that is stupid. If they know it's stupid, maybe they'll sit down next time."

An epitaph Shaw wrote for Who's Who in America a few years ago, read: "He did the best he could with the material at hand." However, at a late lecture to music students at the University of Southern California, he said: "I've decided it ought to be shorter, to make it more elegant." After a pause he added, "I've cut it down to two words: 'Go away.'"

First published in Jazz Journal, June 2010. Reproduced by kind permission of the editor.

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