Jazz Giant Artie Shaw Dies at Age 94
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw, famed for classic recordings of “Begin the Beguine” and “Oh, Lady Be Good” as well as turbulent marriages to movie stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, died on Thursday at age 94, his manager Will Curtis said.
Shaw, who died at his Los Angeles-area home, had been in ill health for several years since he fell and broke a hip while walking his dog, Curtis said.
“He was in tremendous pain,” he added.
Born Arnold Jacob Arshawsky to a seamstress mother and photographer father in New York City on May 23, 1910, Shaw was about as restless a jazz star as one could find.
He formed and reformed bands, married and divorced eight times, gave up music for more than 30 years and put down his clarinet in 1954 never to play it in public again, quitting at age 44.
Critics dismissed his work at first. But soon they hailed him as a unique voice in swing-era jazz, especially for his beautiful tone and control of his instrument’s top register.
The Down Beat critic Howard Mandel once wrote: “In Shaw’s lips and hands the clarinet bent as pliantly as a blade of grass; it thrilled him to make glissandi, fast or sad melodies, and wonderful virtuosic turns.”
Among his famous songs were a 1938 rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” which made him a national star and chief rival to legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman, “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Stardust,” “Indian Love Call” and “Frenesi.”
He once said the success of “Begin the Beguine” was like an anchor around his neck.
As smooth as his tone was, Shaw was a man at war with himself. A crusty, self-declared perfectionist, Shaw gave up the clarinet because he said could not reach the level of artistry he desired.
In 1981, he ended a long musical intermission by reorganizing a band that bore his name and played his music — but with another clarinetist, Dick Johnson, leading the orchestra and playing the solos Shaw made famous.
Shaw traveled with the orchestra as a guest host and sometime conductor of the band’s signature opening number, “Nightmare.”
Shaw’s bands in the 1930s and 1940s featured a who’s who of jazz greats including Billie Holiday, Buddy Rich, Roy Eldridge and “Hot Lips” Page. At the height of his popularity, he earned $30,000 a week, a huge sum for the Depression Era.
He was one of the few white bandleaders who sought out black talent. Decades after Billie Holiday sang with him, Shaw still marveled at the sound of her voice.
“When she sang something, it came alive. I mean that is what jazz is all about,” he once said.
Shaw called himself a difficult man, a view his eight former wives, including novelist Kathleen Winsor and actresses Evelyn Keyes, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner might have agreed with. He recalled once almost erupting when a woman asked if he could play something with a Latin beat.
Of Shaw’s string of former wives, manager Curtis recalled, “He said he never had to pay any alimony because they were all as rich as he was.”
It was once a national joke to have as many wives as Artie Shaw had.
In a 1985 interview with Reuters, Shaw said he gave up playing when he decided he was aiming for a perfection that could kill him.
“I am compulsive. I sought perfection. I was constantly miserable. I was seeking a constantly receding horizon. So I quit,” he said.
“It was like cutting off an arm that had gangrene. I had to cut it off to live. I’d be dead if I didn’t stop. The better I got, the higher I aimed. People loved what I did, but I had grown past it. I got to the point where I was walking in my own footsteps,” he said in that interview.
Shaw spent his time as a guest on television game shows, writing an autobiography and a novel, traveling and lecturing.
But starting in the 1980s, Shaw returned to the road with his revived band as its host and sometime conductor of its opening number before turning over to Johnson.