How many jazz records have we featured from 1949? And how many times have I made the point of how fractured jazz had become, heading in multiple new directions at once. Here is another of those directions – one that took the “normal” big band and put it on a course that would be followed by many others over the next thirty years. But one that was a commercial failure for Shaw when he tried the sound in 1949.
Artie Shaw would surely be included in almost any list of “The Top Ten Big Bands Of The Swing Era”. As a clarinet player, he was in the thick of the group who found themselves as part of the New York jazz scene of the late 1920’s and by 1935 was one of many of that cohort who was leading his own band.
But Artie Shaw (born Arthur Arshawski of parents who were Jewish immigrants from Europe) was never wired the same as other bandleaders. Where most were content to find a winning style and stick with it, Shaw was restless. There was never so much as “an Artie Shaw band” as there was a series of Artie Shaw bands – I count three distinct groups even before the Second World War. He would start a band, find success, get fed up with what that success brought, and disband. Rinse and repeat.
Shaw led a band for the U.S. Navy during wartime, playing in far-off venues in the Pacific theater, often closer to the front lines than was prudent. He started a new civilian band in 1945 – a very good one, but one which was (true to form) gone by 1946. Shaw did a little of this, a little of that, and by 1949 found himself a little broke.
Shaw had made a vow to never again lead another dance band. His idea of hell was having to play the big hit Stardust night after night, and he had spent early 1949 dabbling in classical music. However, a combination of tax debt and the bills from one of his many divorces (he was married eight times) led him to form what he once called his “fast-money band.” For a product of financial desperation, this band was a lot better than it should have been. Late that summer, Shaw hired a group of young musicians, hired some top modern arrangers and went on the road for a few months so that things could come together. Then in late December he went into the recording studio for a blitz of recordings, which was where the big money was.
These were not the normal “sell them at retail” recordings, but something called radio transcriptions. These transcriptions were 16 inch discs (a 4 inch diameter increase over the LP that was the norm by the mid 1950’s) which played at 33 1/3 rpm, making them good for fifteen minutes of material on a side. There were several companies that, beginning in the 1930s, recorded these discs for the broadcast trade via a subscription model.
Those transcriptions provided inexpensive programming for smaller stations as well as music that was free from the legal hassles while the musicians’ unions, the broadcast industry and the recording industry duked it out for the rights to play records over the air. And if you ever wondered how some of those old radio shows survived to now, it is because they were recorded on transcriptions.
The fifty tracks recorded for the RCA Thesaurus transcription service from the days around Christmas of 1949 through January 6, 1950 represent the total recorded output of this band, which Shaw closed down shortly after the last recordings were cut.
Shaw later said that if the band had made any impressions on audiences, he would have kept it going. But night after night during his tour, Shaw was trying to find a lane where none apparently existed. His fans wanted his old stuff. Listeners into more modern sounds had migrated from the big bands to the small bebop groups that were everywhere at the time. This band, which sounds now like a great blend of both danceability and musical innovation, was simply a retail flop in 1949. Shaw once noted wryly “everybody loved it but the audience.”
This particular cut, So Easy, was recorded in the earlier part of that session, certainly before December 28, 1949. Tadd Dameron was one of those modern arrangers hired by Shaw and who wrote the piece we feature today. Dameron is quite obscure to the general public, but was writing for “anyone who was anyone” in the late 1940s, from Count Basie to Dizzy Gillespie to Sarah Vaughan. He was one of those writers, arrangers and players (piano, in his case) held in universally high esteem by those in the jazz world of the 1940’s and 50’s, at least before a narcotics addiction got the better of him.
The group was stacked with first rate young solo talent. Tenor sax soloist Al Cohn had clearly soaked up a lot of Lester Young in his youth, offering a sound very much like the tenor great. And Shaw’s clarinet sound had evolved by the time of this band, less shrill than his earlier work, with a more mellow, full-bodied sound and possessing very little vibrato.
To me the noteworthy thing about this record is that it points the way to how just about every big jazz band sounded for the next thirty or more years. For those old enough to remember watching Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in the mid 1970’s, can’t you imagine something just like this coming from Doc Severinsen’s NBC Tonight Show Orchestra at the end of the show or during one of those “more to come” breaks? And Count Basie sold a lot of records into the 1960’s with a sound very much like this band’s.
The key was that the band didn’t just do musical versions of melodies, whether well known or otherwise – as had been the case in most of popular jazz. This band worked up arrangements that began with a bebop-style theme but, instead of going into a series of frenetic solos as most bop music did, the whole structure was supported by a series of intricately written ensemble passages with some fairly traditional solos out in front of it.
I suppose the closest comparison to Artie Shaw might be Stan Kenton, although Shaw’s tastes were much more restrained (and led to much wider popularity) than the more adventurous Kenton. Shaw certainly jumped styles as frequently as Kenton did – until he just stopped. Shaw recorded a handful of tracks with a new small group in 1954 but they were not released until decades later. Artie put down his clarinet and never picked it up again. This despite living to the age of 96 by the time he died in 2004, perhaps the last notable representative of his musical era.
Oddly, Artie Shaw even fronted a new band in the 1980’s. He made the musical choices, he hired the personnel, he even stood on stage and directed it. But he would not play a single note because, in his mind, he could not possibly measure up to the standard he expected of himself after such a long layoff. Shaw seemed to combine the incompatible: The artist’s desire to reach for something new and the showman’s need for audience approval. Is this the perfect recipe for lifelong unhappiness?
If you say “Artie Shaw” today, everyone (who remembers him at all – a diminishing cohort) thinks of his megahit from 1938, Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. Or his other megahit from 1940-41, Frenesi. Or maybe his Grammercy Five who put out classics like the under-appreciated Scuttlebutt from 1945, something featured in this space quite some time back. And which I should listen to more frequently than I do.
In fact, if you are interested in a deeper Artie Shaw dive, listen to all four of these, each recording separated by no more than 3-5 years from what came before or after. A traditional but smoother-than-common big band, a band with a full string section that refused to follow the normal rules, a hard driving, freewheeling small group session that pegs the fun meter from start to finish and this lush, sophisticated band that was copied by a generation of musicians who never forgot it (unlike Wikipedia’s editors, who seem to have never heard of it).
I suppose the one thing that binds them all together is their musical quality. You can feel each one stretching for something, something that is probably not attainable. But Artie Shaw always stretched for it anyway. And we should all be glad that he did. If only he had kept stretching during the second half of his life – think of all that might have been.
Further Reading: For a more in-depth look at this band, check out this 2012 Marc Myers piece found at the website for Canada’s Jazz.FM
Music Credit: So Easy, Artie Shaw & His Orchestra – from the YouTube page of Milton Page
Artie Shaw taken in New York in 1946-48 by William Gottlieb (and in the public domain by his wishes.)
Artie Shaw and the Rangers – taken March 5, 1943 for the Department of the Navy and in the public domain.
Example transcription disc from gobeyondnow.com
Circa 1946 advertisement for Capitol Records Transcription Service as found offered for sale on Etsy.
1940 Victor Records album cover
Tadd Dameron, taken in New York in 1946-48 by William Gottlieb (and in the public domain by his wishes.)
Al Cohn album cover from the 1950 Savoy Records release Al Cohn’s Tones