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Artie Shaw's Difficult Stardom

Published: 5/22/2012

 Former big band leader Artie Shaw is shown playing the clarinet on Sept. 10, 1941 at an unknown location. Shaw is among seven artists who have been named National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. (AP Photo)

Artie Shaw (AP Photo)

The clarinet doesn't always get a prominent place in jazz music, but Artie Shaw, who would have turned 102 today, made it swing.

Shaw's music ranged from swing classics to experimental fusions of jazz and classical music, early bebop to chamber jazz that put harpsichords in the mix. But we know him best for the standards, swing-era favorites like "Begin the Beguine."

Shaw himself preferred much less accessible music, like the eerie, Hassidic-influenced "Nightmare," which he chose as his signature song.

And he enjoyed injecting the unusual into jazz – like his "Interlude in B Flat," which included a string quartet in the backing band.

Stardom wasn't always comfortable for Artie Shaw. Though he worked with jazz greats like Buddy Rich, Billie Holiday, Helen Forrest, Mel Tormé and Ray Conniff, he repeatedly dissolved his bands at the height of their fame, and he was vocal in complaining about the preferences of the masses. As he reflected later in his life, "I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was 'Begin the Beguine.'"

Shaw's career didn't suffer from his sometimes prickly disposition, nor did his stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He formed a band that performed concerts in battle zones, entertaining the troops around the Pacific. When he returned home, exhausted after 18 months of hard work and heavy travel, he was still hot, performing at Carnegie Hall and with the New York Philharmonic.

But his love/hate relationship with stardom took its toll. Frustrated by the poor response to his more innovative compositions, Shaw retired from jazz entirely in 1954. He tried his hand at advanced mathematics, fly fishing, marksmanship, and writing fiction – and excelled at all of them.

Shaw was almost as well known for his dramatic love life as he was for his music and other pursuits. Married many times over, he died Dec. 30, 2004, a single man – not one of his eight marriages lasted. His brides (and ex-wives) included four famous actresses – Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, Ava Gardner, Evelyn Keyes – and Kathleen Windsor, author of the scandalous classic romance novel Forever Amber. Three of the marriages ended in annulment, including his union with Turner, who suffered a nervous breakdown due to Shaw's emotional abuse.

Living wasn't always easy for Shaw. He chafed against society, romance, stardom, and more. It's tempting to sum up his legacy as that of a difficult man rather than a brilliant musician. But it's for music that we remember him best, so we'll leave you with one more song, "Concerto for Clarinet." We think Shaw would appreciate being remembered this way.

Written by Linnea Crowther

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