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Obituary: Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw: a champion of jazz innovation

Artie Shaw was one of the world's great clarinettists and bandleaders, at his peak in the 1930s and 1940s.

His clarinet-playing has been described as brilliant and dazzling, with a tone that was all his own.

In the late 1930s, he formed a big band which became one of the most popular of the swing era, with Shaw's own best-selling arrangement of Begin the Beguine.

Shaw, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 94, was perhaps almost as well known for his succession of wives. He had eight in all, including film stars Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes.

When America was about to enter World War II, Time magazine told the German people that America meant "skyscrapers, Clark Gable and Artie Shaw".


Arthur Jacob Arshawsky was born in New York City on 23 May 1910 and brought up in Connecticut.

Artie Shaw playing the clarinet
Artie Shaw bought his first clarinet aged 13
There was nothing in his background to suggest a musical career. He bought his first saxophone at the age of 13, and took up the clarinet two years later.

He was captivated by some of the contemporary jazz greats like Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. He was composing and arranging by the time he was 20.

He travelled widely, and first appeared as a soloist in May 1936 in New York.

His use of an innovative combination of instruments was greeted with great enthusiasm. Recording offers followed.

He formed a dance band, and employed Billie Holiday, though he was never really interested in lyrics, and used vocalists only because they were commercially necessary.

He had become the first white bandleader to employ a black singer as a full-time member of his band.

War volunteer

Within a year, after the release of Begin the Beguine, the Artie Shaw Orchestra was earning the then equivalent of $600,000 a week. The record has become one of the best-selling in history.

Portrait of Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw gave up playing in 1954
In 1939 Shaw appeared in his first feature film, Dancing Co-Ed, with Lana Turner. Their marriage in the following year lasted seven months.

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Shaw joined the Navy in 1942, and toured the Pacific with his own service band.

In 1951, Shaw quit the music business to become a dairy farmer. He took to writing and his semi-autobiographical The Trouble with Cinderella came out in 1952.

He made his last public appearance as an instrumentalist in 1954, before giving up music completely. The following year, he moved to Spain for five years to be a full-time writer.

During this period he wrote a series of novels, before getting into film distribution and film and theatrical production. He produced The Great Gatsby on Broadway.

History will judge him as one of the most innovative jazz clarinettists who led some of the finest ensembles.

An epitaph he wrote for Who's Who in America reads: "He did the best he could with the material at hand."

Jazz giant Artie Shaw dies at 94
30 Dec 04 |  Entertainment


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