Pen Mightier Than
Clarinet For Artie Shaw
The Legendary Lothario Who During His Prime Could Measure The Length Of His Marriages By The Second Hand On His Watch Evolved Into A Globally Conscientious Author
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine
Jan. 18, 2016 — During the big band era of the late 1930s and ‘40s, Artie Shaw wielded the hottest licorice stick this side of the Down Beat Readers Poll or, at least, Benny Goodman. When his orchestra struck gold in 1938 with their hit recording of Cole Porter’s lush ballad, “Begin the Beguine,” an odyssey of one-night stands quickly led to Hollywood and a brief fling in B-movies.
Shaw, a legendary lothario with more notches on his bedpost than tone holes in his clarinet, readily embraced the eat, drink and debauch credo of the film colony and became a stern-faced, controlling guru to a bevy of infatuated starlets including Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. Like bowling pins, actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes, in turn, fell for Shaw’s alpha male charms and took their places as his wives (he had eight) in marriages that could be clocked by the second hand of a stopwatch.
In the case of “Sweater Girl” Turner, after adding some tempo to a 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios trifle called “The Dancing Co-ed” in which she starred, Shaw married the platinum blonde bombshell. A scant four months later they were divorced to banner headlines and the ecstatic delight of tabloids and Tinseltown fanzines.
We met Shaw in 1983. By then he had become a self-styled expatriate from the garish excesses of Beverly Hills and its environs. He lived in Newberry Park (a suburb of Los Angeles in the western reaches of the San Fernando Valley), drove a moped (which he showed us parked in his garage) on grocery store runs and was vitally concerned about global overpopulation, water shortages and energy conservation.
“When I putter up to a red light and see some blue-haired old lady fiercely idling in her Cadillac enroute to buy makeup, it makes me sick,” Shaw said. Despite a few errant strands of hair working hard to cover his bald pate, some belly paunch and a gold neck chain so wide it looked like it could keep a surly pit-bull tethered to a yard stake, Shaw still cut a handsome figure. And for us, it somehow felt reassuring to know that he had not lost any of the pugnacity that had made him a difficult customer to deal with on set and in the boudoir.
Shaw’s two-story, Italian villa-style, tract home was undistinguished from the outside and had the cookie-cutter look of many of the homes in the area but it was cluttered with mementos from his life on the road, including a Japanese battle flag captured on Guadalcanal and autographed by Adm. William “Bull” Halsey. (Shaw served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, leading a morale-boosting band in the South Pacific.). Scattered haphazardly on walls and tables was all manner of art, including a painting by German artist George Grosz and a small Dadaist sculpture that could be disassembled and put back together.
What wasn’t visible was any sign of his clarinet. “Contrary to rumors, I didn’t make it into a lamp,” Shaw huffed. “I still have three of them around here somewhere.”
Shaw told us that he ankled moviedom after experiencing an epiphany of sorts. “One day I awoke and realized that the whole Rodeo Drive scene was cosmetic bullshit. Socrates wrote that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ I’ve always been introspective. From the age of 20 I knew I wanted to be a writer. Playing jazz was my method of financing a writing career. I really thought band-leading was a dead-end.”
It had been more than 25 years since Shaw last blew a note, but the trade-off of clarinet for typewriter had reaped a few dividends (if not dividend checks). In the interim, Shaw wrote a valedictory of the swing era and its musicians called The Trouble with Cinderella. He also authored a volume of short stories entitled The Best of Intentions. When we visited, he was working on a gargantuan autobiographical account of his life entitled The Education of Albie Snow which remained unfinished and unpublished at his death in 2004.
“I’ve got 90 chapters so far and I’ve done about 20 drafts of each chapter,” he said pulling out a manila folder from a portable fireproof safe. “I wouldn’t care if the whole house burned down as long as the manuscript is safe, but I fear I’ll be old as a Sequoia when I finish.” Shaw couldn’t possibly have known the prescience of his remark: he was 94 when he died and had, by that time, probably used up a giant redwood’s worth of pulp on rewrites.
“Writing is a measured and thoughtful approach to expression. That’s what I crave. Jazz can never be that,” Shaw said. “It’s a spontaneous bag of tricks that you play as fast as you can. You are never where you would ideally like to be. An attraction of writing is that it can make even a stupid person seem halfway intelligent. If only the person will write the same thought repeatedly, improving it a little bit each time. It’s like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump, anybody can do it, it just takes a lot of hot air.”
One of the slapdash films that Shaw and his orchestra appeared in during his brief sojourn in Hollywood was a middling musical called Second Chorus starring Fred Astaire. In a rare position of scrutiny, Shaw saw past the happy-go-lucky elegance of Astaire’s public persona and into the appalling discipline of a dancer who rehearsed seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
“Astaire was a sweater. He toiled. He was a humorless, Teutonic man; the opposite of his debonair image in top hat and tails,” Shaw said in a pointed, reductive analysis. “I liked him because he was an entertainer and an artist. There’s an important distinction between the two terms. An artist is concerned only with what is acceptable to himself, where an entertainer strives to please the public. Astaire did both. Louis Armstrong was another one; he always had an eye on the public but he did what he had to do to please himself.”
The artist vs. entertainer distinction had the effect of a wakeup call for Shaw. In fact, it’s the reason he retired from making music. Shaw told us that not long after “Begin the Beguine” became a signature tune, his orchestra became a commodity. “It soon became evident that no matter how badly we played on a certain night – and there were nights when we couldn’t find our groove and nothing jelled – the audience still whooped and hollered. They were oblivious. Our fame had preceded us; outdistanced us.”
To Shaw, a fan was a “heedless person admiring celebrity,” and it didn’t take a soothsayer to understand that that was anathema to everything he stood for.
“I had to get out because I saw the end of my life foretold,” he said. “When you become a professional you reach a level of excellence below which you cannot fall. Pretty soon the audience can’t distinguish the difference between superlative and mediocre playing, but the artist can discern it if he remains true to himself and doesn’t succumb to his own favorable publicity.
“You can easily fall into a plush-lined rut where a form of death occurs,” he continued. “I see creative people who ended their lives 40 years ago and are still walking around. When that happens, you’d better get out of the business or resolve yourself to becoming Lawrence Welk. He’s a happy man but if he could hear with my ears what he is doing, he would commit harakiri on his baton.”
Shaw admitted that he never regretted giving up jazz because performing at an exceptional level is “just too hard.”
“It’s like asking Muhammad Ali if he does road work for his own amusement,” Shaw said. “When I hear something played on the clarinet I suffer because I can feel the intensity of effort. I might remember a bad reed or the trouble I had with the second trumpet player or God knows what. The quintessential question that people ask me is why I don’t play even for fun anymore. I’ve inured myself to that kind of examination. I just tune them out like a bad television commercial.”
Only Shaw’s last two CD recordings (“The Last Recordings – Rare & Unreleased,” Music Masters, 1992 and “More Last Recordings – The Final Sessions” Music Masters 1993) measure up to his supreme critical gaze. In what amounted to an authoritative statement, he said: “If I could erase all the rest of my work, I’d be happy.”
Stepping out of the performing limelight in 1954 didn’t mean passing up television talk show guest spots, the ideal forum to plug his books. Shaw was a participant on Johnny Carson’s second Tonight Show and appeared on every star roster from Dick Cavett to Merv. But even guest shots went the way of the clarinet after a while.
“You can’t really talk on television. No one wants to hear you,” Shaw said. “Dick Cavett is a bloody bore. If you want to be a philosopher then get the hell off TV. It’s the wrong medium. Truthfully, I’m not your ideal TV guest. On the Merv Griffin Show, which is all things to all people, I likened the crowds at Woodstock to a bunch of muddy pigs. I was booed off the stage. By and large, TV is blight. So everyone knows the latest Henny Youngman joke … big deal!”
If that sounds like the phlegmatic raving of an embittered misanthrope, Shaw would’ve been the first to admit (albeit in a bellicose manner) that he never lost his maverick streak.
“I guess you could say I don’t have much patience with pointless people. Some of my most heated run-ins were with interviewers. One guy desperately wanted me to write a Hollywood exposé. I said that I would do it only if he agreed to the title ‘The Platinum Vagina.’ He asked why and I replied that platinum is expensive, hard, cold and potentially harmful. I get tired of reporters who only seem interested in the color of Lana Turner’s bedspread or what was under her sweater.”
Straight no chaser. That was Artie Shaw.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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