It is funny, I find myself coming back to Artie Shaw more frequently than I could have ever imagined. But then again, Artie Shaw did so many more unique things than so many of his contemporaries. And one of them was his small “band within a band”, the Grammercy Five. What made this small combo unique was that it dusted off the antique harpsichord and made it into a jazz instrument – with extremely pleasant results.
Small group jazz done by a “breakout” from a big band was not new in 1940. Benny Goodman had augmented his highly popular big band with the Benny Goodman Trio as early as 1935. That trio had expanded a bit – we sampled the BG quartet with Lionel Hampton’s vibes and Charlie Christian’s electric guitar some time back – and Goodman’s “small groups” were quite well known by the fall of 1940.
And by that fall of 1940, Artie Shaw was into his third band – the first was unique and never really got traction, and a second that was wildly popular but disbanded in late 1939 in just another in a long line of examples where Shaw’s mercurial nature won out over sustained commercial success. (We featured an amazing genuine stereo recording of that 1938-39 band here).
Shaw’s “new band” of 1940 was popular too, but ever the restless musician, Shaw was searching for another frontier. It may be a central part of the story that Shaw poached several key members from Goodman during the summer of 1940 – possibly to stick a figurative thumb in Goodman’s eye as the two had a longstanding rivalry. Actually not, because Benny had to temporarily disband due to an illness.
Whether it had anything to do with engaging in a lesser effort to tweak Goodman, Shaw created his small group that fall. Artie Shaw and his Grammercy Five (or “Grammercy 5-” as it was spelled on record labels of the time) was named for Shaw’s telephone exchange, from the era when the first two digits of a telephone number were converted into a word. And being a product of Shaw’s imagination, you could safely bet that it would not be just “more of the usual.”
The personnel for the group were pulled from the band (and most of them were Goodman alums). Shaw was demanding, but also respectful of his players, so he tended to have excellent players working for him. Goodman, in contrast, was equally demanding but much less respectful. Bassist Jud DeNaut, drummer Nick Fatool and trumpeter Billy Butterfield were excellent players, with each having a long career in music. Benny Goodman had begun to feature the electric guitar of Charlie Christian, so it should not be surprising that Shaw would put someone on that instrument, and it was a twenty-year old guitarist named Al Hendrickson.
It was the fifth spot in the Grammercy 5 where things got interesting. Pianist Johnny Guarnieri probably expected just another day at the office, until he learned that Artie Shaw wanted him to play a harpsichord. He told the story on a 1981 episode of the radio program “Piano Jazz”, hosted by Marian McPartland. “Shaw asked me if I’d ever played the harpsichord, and I said: ‘Certainly.’ And he said, ‘Well that’s great; we’re gonna make some records tomorrow.’ . . . I was lying! So I said, ‘Artie—I don’t know what a harpsichord is.’ . . . He says, ‘I have one up the house; let’s go up there tonight—and we’ll rehearse, and we’ll make some records tomorrow.'”
Guarnieri recalled that there was a bit of a learning curve, because the action of the keys was completely different. The harpsichord had last been popular during the renaissance and baroque eras of music until the piano pushed it aside. While a piano strikes strings with a hammer (which allows both loud and soft playing) the harpsichord plucks the strings. Therefore, not only were all notes at a single volume, but the action of the keys was much stiffer than he was used to. But once he could handle a quick “trill” that could flutter between a couple of notes, Guarnieri decided that he was ready.
The group cut four recordings on September 3, 1940 at RCA Victor’s Hollywood recording studio. One of them has become quite famous and is our lead tune: “Summit Ridge Drive”. The piece was a basic blues written by Shaw. Where the group was named for Shaw’s telephone exchange, the composition was named for his street, where he lived with his third (of eight) wives, Lana Turner.
Guarnieri’s harpsichord is evident right from the beginning, behind Shaw’s clarinet and Butterfield’s muted trumpet that team up for the opening theme. Those three then take turns on solos before finishing up with some ensemble work and a couple of harpsi-chords (see what I did there?) to finish it off.
Summit Ridge Drive is certainly the most famous records of the original G5, and brings together everything most listeners love about Shaw. The solos are great, the written bits are intelligently composed, and it is all backed by an infectious rhythm that never lets up, even at relaxed tempos. If nothing else, Shaw’s groups always sounded fresh, not just more of the same old thing.
This one sold decently at the outset, but got a boost when it was used in a 1945 film, “The Story of G.I. Joe”. By then, Shaw was in the middle of yet another concept for his big band and this record got a second wind. It has displayed a lot of staying power, because it is hard to find a decent assortment of Shaw’s music that doesn’t include it.
Another record from that session is this one, “Keepin’ Myself for You”. I can’t tell if Hendrickson’s guitar was completely absent in the prior tune, or if he was just featured more prominently in this one. Between the harpsicord and the guitar, all of those plucked or strummed strings can kind of merge together so that they can be a little tough to distinguish. In any case, the guys come together to do a lovely job on a song that should be better known than it is.
Shaw’s Grammercy 5 hit the studios one more time, on December 5, 1940, when the same six guys recorded four more records – one of them remains very well known, though not because of Shaw: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. That song was already seven years old when Shaw got to it in 1940, but it would become most famous when The Platters recorded an updated version in 1958. Artie Shaw’s record does not rate a mention on the song’s Wiki page, but this is really one of the prettiest versions of it I have ever heard.
Artie Shaw was nothing if not unpredictable, and he must have become tired of the whole idea because after those2 sessions and 8 records in the latter part of 1940 and some live performances in early 1941, that was it for the Grammercy Five. At least in its initial concept. The group would be reconstituted three more times, in 1945, 1950 and 1954. Each group had different players and a different sound (we featured a bit from the 1945 G5 a few years back right here) but there would be no more harpsichord in any of them.
I can understand how Shaw might have felt that he had done what he set out to do with the harpsicord – give it a try and see if it could be a jazz instrument. He succeeded, of course, and in the process turned out some performances that could make one guess that they were played much later than 1940 when they were actually recorded. Rosemary Clooney did a couple of records in the early 50s that made use of the harpsichord as a background instrument, surely a hat-tip to Shaw’s pioneering work here. These records have not turned me into a rabid fan of the jazz harpsicord, but they reinforce my opinion of Shaw, who could always be counted on to try something new. And in trying something new, he did it beautifully.
Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal, 1/9/2010. (Nolan was the author of an excellent bio on Shaw, entitled “Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake”.
Music selections as noted on the YouTube pages noted above.