These Artie Shaw records are great. A whole mess of them, broadcasts mostly, in beautiful condition, like the obsessive uncle died and the kids dropped his boring old records off at the Goodwill. That must be how they wound up in my closet with my old shirts and Ted Nugent. Anyway Dodo Marmarosa is cooking and Little Jazz blows high and Dave Tough–another epileptic–keeps it swinging as Artie is between Ava and Lana.
So I was driving down one of the local boulevards on a moonless night, flipping across the Sirius dial looking for something I could stand and having no luck. Then I hit a pothole and out came Artie Shaw. “Blue Skies” even. I got the car stabilized again–for a second there I was a B-17 in Twelve O’Clock High, going down over Stuttgart–and tried to remember between what wives he recorded this. Judging from the hipness of the arrangement, it would have been between Kathleen Winsor and Doris Dowling. I think around 1951.
He’d just busted up that kinda bebop big band of his. Big bands were a hard sell on the road after the Second World War, and his crowd weren’t into that newfangled stuff. Things change, fans don’t. So Artie packed it in, again. He quit music like he quit wives. You can see it in this picture. His ex-wife Ava is glomming onto him like a night’s worth of sex, he’s got a splitting headache worrying about the biz and Lana Turner has just walked into the room.
Poor Artie. He should have stayed in the Navy. Air raids were easier than this.
So he cuts the band loose (about the time he cut Kate Winsor loose) and goes back to the old Gramercy 5 thing, plus one, and minus the harpsichord. Swinging little sextet, lots of solo room. Artie Shaw is an underrated jazz player anymore, which is a shame. He certainly proved his mettle on the small group dates. But when he wants to do a big band date by this time he cheats and just pulls in a bunch of studio cats. Results are nice. That’s what this “Blue Skies” was, a studio date with studio players. Driving along in the dark, I was really taken with the extended tenor sax stretch. That’s no old fashioned dance band run. There’s some story telling there. Had to look up the session at home later. It was Herbie Steward, who you likely never heard of. He was one of Woody Herman’s Four Brothers, the phalanx of sax players Woody put out front because they were so goddamn good. Good but, uh, had issues. All the same issue. Herbie’s issue affected his lifetime output more so than brothers Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, but considerably less than brother Serge Chaloff. You have to be a historian to know Serge Chaloff, which is sad. He was a visionary baritone player. He also once drove on a railroad track for a mile without knowing it. Some guys you don’t let drive. But we’re not talking about the Thundering Herd here, are we. We’re talking about Artie Shaw, his wives, and whatever happened to Herbie Steward. Well he was busy, that Herbie was. One of those 1950’s jazz musicians with two careers. Your ax or your arm, baby, one or the other has to come first. One becomes a way of doing the other. Herbie eventually cleaned up, stuck to the one career, put out a few LP’s, which unfortunately I’ve never heard. At least he had the opportunity to make a comeback. Serge not so much. Though it wasn’t the heroin that killed him. Cancer got him first.
Several years later….I have absolutely no idea where this essay was going. I found it among the drafts. I just kind of petered out with that last line. It was a good start anyway.
I knew a guy that learned to play the clarinet, got married eight times, and lived forever, almost. But was he happy? If he’d played bassoon, it would be moot. If he’d played the trumpet, it would be mute, at least on the ballads. The lesson is you don’t sleep with Ava Gardner playing the bassoon. Not at the same time, anyway. And if that’s what makes you happy, be my guest, learn to play the clarinet. You’ll never make a living at it, but then you don’t make a living writing either. But at least writing doesn’t bother the neighbors. Continue reading
Found an old flick on some station, Second Chorus, Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith cracking wise, Paulette Goddard her usual little knock out self, and I’m not paying attention till I hear a clarinet and it’s Artie Shaw and band, doing Everything is Jumpin’. Such a sound he had, that Artie Shaw. Great stuff. Johnny Guarnieri on piano I recognized, and Nick Fatool on drums. Great Billy Butterfield trumpet solo. It was 1940. Europe going all to hell, Artie at his peak. Selling tens of millions of records, playing big halls, broadcasts, movie appearances, raking in the cash. Married to Lana Turner even. He’d be ducking Japanese bombs in a couple years, and then the Big Band scene imploded after the war. A slew of other wives. But 1940 was the pinnacle, and Artie was already bored. You couldn’t hear it in his playing, though. And he never stopped making great music until he packed it all in for good in 1954 and lived forever, almost.