Artie Shaw (born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City) grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where his natural introversion was deepened by local antisemitism according to Shaw's autobiography. Shaw began learning the saxophone when he was 13 years old, and by the age of 16, he switched to the clarinet and left home to tour with a band. Returning to New York, he became a session musician through the early 1930s. From 1925 until 1936, Shaw performed with a variety of bands and orchestras, including those of Johnny Caverello and Austin Wylie. In 1929 and 1930 he played with Irving Aaronson's Commanders, where he was exposed to symphonic music which he would later incorporate into his arrangements.
Shaw first gained critical acclaim with his "Interlude in B-flat" at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York in 1935. During the Swing Era, Shaw's big band was popular with hits like "Begin the Beguine" (1938), "Stardust" (with a legendary trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield), "Back Bay Shuffle", "Moonglow", "Rosalie" and "Frenesi." He was an innovator in the big band idiom, using unusual instrumentation; "Interlude in B-flat", where he was backed with only a rhythm section and a string quartet, was one of the earliest examples of what would be later dubbed third stream.
In addition to hiring Buddy Rich, he signed Billie Holiday as his band's vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer. However, after recording "Any Old Time" she left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more mainstream singer. His band became enormously successful, and his playing was eventually recognized as equal to that of Benny Goodman: Longtime Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard cited Shaw as his favorite clarinet player. In response to Goodman's nickname, the "King of Swing", Shaw's fans dubbed him the "King of the Clarinet." Shaw, however, felt the titles were reversed. "Benny Goodman played clarinet. I played music," he said.
Artie Shaw and his band playing "Everything's Jumping" from Second Chorus (1940)Shaw did in fact prize innovation and exploration in music more highly than popular success and formulaic dance music, despite a string of hits which sold more than 100 million records. He fused jazz with classical music by adding strings to his arrangements, experimented with bebop, and formed "chamber jazz" groups that utilized such novel sounds as harpsichords or Afro-Cuban music.
The long series of musical groups Shaw formed included such talents as vocalists Billie Holiday, Helen Forrest and, Mel Tormé; drummers Buddy Rich and Dave Tough, guitarists Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Tal Farlow and trombonist-arranger Ray Conniff, among countless others. He composed the morose "Nightmare", with its Hassidic nuances, for his personal theme, rather than more approachable songs. In a televised interview of the 1970s, Shaw derided the often "asinine" songs that bands were compelled to play night after night even though he did write the anthem for Rav Meir Kahane's' JDL . In 1994, he told Frank Prial (The New York Times), "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine.'
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