“Vilia” (1939) Artie Shaw

“Vilia”

Composed by Franz Lehar; arranged by Artie Shaw.

Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra on January 17, 1939 for RCA-Bluebird in New York City.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Bernie Privin, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Les Jenkins and Harry Rodgers, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone and clarinet; Hank Freeman, alto saxophone and bass clarinet; Tony Pastor, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Bob Kitsis, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.

The story:

Artie Shaw-1937.

By the time Artie Shaw recorded “Vilia,” in mid-January of 1939, he was finally tasting the first sweet nectar of success, after two and a half years of hard and sometimes frustrating work as a the leader of a touring band. Shaw’s career as a bandleader began quite unexpectedly after he appeared at the famous Imperial Theater Swing Concert, which took place on May 24, 1936 in New York City. That event was a benefit concert for New York Musicians Local 802. Prior to that (and indeed after it for awhile), Shaw had been either a sideman in someone else’s band, or a studio musician. At that concert, he presented a type of music that was somewhat related to the swing idiom, but clearly off the beaten path. It was called “Interlude in B Flat,” and it was played by Shaw on clarinet, supported by a string quartet plus guitar, bass and drums.

It is now a part of the standard Shaw mythology that he played “Interlude in B Flat” at that concert, was astonished by the massive positive reaction of the audience to it, and having no encore, played it again for the now rapt audience. As Shaw was wont to say, “…long before (the classic film) Casablanca, the audience shouted for us to play it again.”(*) He also explained the title many times between 1936 and his death at age 94 in 2004: “it was to fill an interlude (tearing-down from one musical act behind the curtain, and setting up for another), and it was in B Flat.” The contrast between what Shaw did and what most other groups did at the concert was large, and he did indeed garner strong applause at the end of his presentation.

Artie Shaw at the Imperial Theater swing concert.

The play it again, Artie story is clever, no doubt, but was it true?  We have learned that Artie Shaw, despite his retirement from performing in the mid-1950s, continued to burnish his image as a legitimate icon of the swing era for decades after, especially starting in about 1970. The historical record however, sometimes presented facts that were different from Shaw’s recollections. An article about the now famous Imperial Theater concert appeared in Down Beat soon afterward it took place. It reported, in relevant part, that Shaw played a…“second selection … ‘Japanese Sandman,’ and (it) proved that (Shaw’s) idea could be adapted to (a) popular selection with plenty (of) guts”.[i] Did Shaw really play “Interlude in B Flat” twice, and then play “Japanese Sandman”?  Or did he play “Interlude in B Flat,” and “Japanese Sandman, and then play “Interlude in B Flat” again? Either possibility would have resulted in poor showmanship. If the audience response was as overwhelming as Shaw reported, he should have dispense with “Japanese Sandman” entirely, played “Interlude in B Flat” again as an encore, and left it at that. Also, he was part of a huge program that had to be kept moving. It contained…“nearly twenty acts, from solo pianists to big bands, on and offstage could have ended in chaos. But a combination of quick, efficient staging and smooth master-of-ceremonies work kept things moving”.[ii] The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from this is that Shaw played both “Interlude in B Flat” and “Japanese Sandman” once, was applauded, took his bows, and left the stage to keep a very crowded program moving.

Artie Shaw-the young bandleader-1936.

In the wake of these events, agent Tom Rockwell, partner with Cork O’Keefe in the Rockwell-O’Keefe booking agency, that was then a relatively minor competitor against the gigantic and monopolistically inclined Music Corporation of America (MCA), was looking for new bandleader clients around whom bands could be built and then sent on tour to compete with MCA’s clients, which then included Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Rockwell convinced Shaw, who was a first-class musician and a successful free-lance in New York, to form his own band. Shaw had all of the musical qualifications to do this, for in addition to being an excellent instrumentalist (and he would get even better playing seven days a week in front of a big band), Shaw possessed exceptional communication skills that enabled him to work very effectively and efficiently with musicians in rehearsal and performance. He was also 26 years old and very handsome, and Rockwell knew that audiences listened with their eyes in addition to their ears.

Shaw was ambivalent about becoming a bandleader, at least at first. But after he started to actually be a bandleader, he found the entire musical process of leading a band to be exhilarating. (So was applause, which Shaw’s music at first didn’t receive much of.) In fact, he was so obsessive about creating the best music he could with his band, that he worked himself to the point of collapse in doing so. In later years he recalled quite accurately that he had no personal life when he was leading his various bands. There simply wasn’t time to have a personal life and lead a band the way he had to lead a band. This extreme state of affairs would underlie Shaw’s eventual decision to depart the music business as a performer in the mid-1950s.

A unique though blurry snapshot of Shaw with his string quartet band, November 30, 1936 Brunswick/ARC recording studio, NYC. The girl is Peg La Centra.(**)

In retrospect, Artie Shaw’s creation of a small swing band (two trumpets, one trombone, one tenor sax, and a four man rhythm section) in the summer of 1936 built around a string quartet, regardless of this band’s musical merits, was a mistake. At a time when audiences were demanding louder and louder swing bands, it made little sense to try to compete with them with the band Shaw put together in the summer of 1936. I strongly suspect that Shaw, who could be quite convincing in discussions, persuaded Rockwell that his idea was worthwhile both musically and economically. Nevertheless, this band existed only until early 1937, when it was disbanded because it was not pulling in enough paying customers.

Regardless of this false start, Shaw had been bitten by the bandleading bug, and he soon formed what was a more conventional swing band consisting of three trumpets, two trombones, four reeds and four rhythm, to back his solo clarinet. The going with this band through 1937 was rough because Shaw was now clearly challenging fellow clarinetist Benny Goodman in a swing market that he (Goodman) was dominating via a successful sponsored network radio show (the Camel Caravan), two Hollywood feature films (The Big Broadcast in 1937 (produced in 1936),and Hollywood Hotel in 1937), and a series of good recordings made for Victor. In addition, throughout 1937, the Goodman band did great business in all of its personal appearances. Goodman achieved an early peak in his career with his famous Carnegie Hall concert in January of 1938.

Despite many challenges through 1937 and well into 1938, Shaw worked without let-up to improve the quality of the music he and his band were presenting. Then, gradually through the spring of 1938 and into the summer, everything seemed to come together for him. (The great vocalist Billie Holiday was featured with Shaw during this period.) His band was working continuously, and making more money on each date. They had good arrangements, mostly written by Jerry Gray, who was developing into one of the best arrangers of the swing era, Shaw’s clarinet playing was constantly getting better, especially in the altissimo (highest) register, where he was beginning to have extraordinary facility. By late 1938, there were two spectacular clarinet virtuosos in the kingdom of swing: Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

The release in late summer of Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine,” his first for RCA-Bluebird, caused great excitement among swing cognoscenti. By the winter of 1938-1939, it was a runaway hit, soon to become one of the best selling records in American pop music history. This led directly to a sponsored network radio show for Shaw (Melody and Madness on CBS, with comedian Robert Benchley), a prime extended engagement at New York’s Hotel Lincoln, with very frequent nationwide NBC broadcasts, and a contract to make a film in Hollywood. As 1939 dawned, Artie Shaw and his band were riding high.

[i] “’Jitter-Bugs’ Thrill at N.Y. Jam Session,” Down Beat, June, 1936.

[ii] Lost Chords, White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz – 1915-1945, by Richard M. Sudhalter, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 576.

(*) The original title for “Interlude in B Flat” was “Chord-ination.”

The music:

Artie Shaw and his band at Hotel Lincoln-January 1939.

Although Artie Shaw was well-known during the swing era for his virtuoso clarinet playing, he was also a capable arranger. He rarely had the time when he was leading his various bands to sit down and write an arrangement from beginning to end. The results when he did were often not particularly remarkable. There were a few exceptions however, and his arrangement on “Vilia” is certainly one of them. His arrangement, and his and his band’s performance of it in this recording resulted in one of the best recordings of the swing era. The pacing, color, contrast, and exuberant swing in this performance are remarkable. This arrangement had been in the Shaw book since the previous fall, having been broadcast on October 28, 1938 from the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln. Shaw preferred to allow arrangements to be played for awhile before dancers before he recorded them. That allowed him and his band to really become familiar with and bring maximum life to all of the musical nuances in them. This arrangement is full of them: hear the many scoops, bending, and strategic glissing (use of glissandi) of notes by the reeds and the brass. 

The cup-muted trumpets start it all, playing atop drummer Buddy Rich’s closed high-hat cymbals through the four bar intro. Then the entire brass sextet (three cup-muted trumpets and three cup-muted trombones), state the melody against a background of three B-flat clarinets and one bass clarinet (played by Hank Freeman). (Query: does Shaw also play his clarinet in this passage?) The piano, guitar and bass are supporting this with a 4/4 beat, while drummer Rich plays in 2/4 on his high-hats, creating an exciting two-against-four rhythm. This continues through the first chorus.

Trumpeter John Best-1939.

Then a colorful transition begins as the reed players quickly switch to their saxophones, and then John Best’s open lead trumpet starts to build an eight bar dynamically upward sonic pyramid, which gradually includes all the open brass and the saxophones. This provides a perfect prelude to the entry of Shaw’s solo clarinet, played against the rhythm section and the provocatively oo-ahing brass. Shaw paraphrases the melody brilliantly, and he swings it. After his solo, the saxophone quartet comes forward with a superb soli segment, led by first alto Les Robinson, that is a perfect example of swinging ensemble playing. Shaw must receive full credit for writing this passage. It sounds like a jazz solo being played by four saxophones, and he frequently wrote similar saxophone section soli which were incorporated into arrangements written by Jerry Gray, his chief arranger. Then the bright open brass have their say, there is a break in tempo, a four-bar interlude played by the three open trombones for contrast, followed by the concluding saxes and brass, with Artie’s clarinet. Note how the brass snap into their one-bar set-up for Shaw’s descending solo clarinet finale. Once again first trumpeter John Best must be singled out for this beautifully played nuance (and his sterling first trumpet playing throughout) that add greatly to the overall swing of this performance. 

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

(**) Recently, in preparing for this post, I came across this photograph. It was tucked into a book in my library. I received it some years ago as an attachment to an email, but I cannot recall who sent me that email. Shaw archivist and historian Reinhard Scheer-Hennings, upon seeing this photo, told me that he purchased the original some twelve years ago. Therefore, I want to give him full credit for rescuing this photo from oblivion.

6 comments on ““Vilia” (1939) Artie Shaw”

  1. Michael House says:

    Shaw’s version of “Vilia” has been a favorite of mine since I bought the Bluebird “78” at a Goodwill store in the 1960s when I was a teenager. For trivia buffs, Shaw’s “Vilia” can be heard playing in the background for several minutes in the 1991 movie “The Rocketeer.” Shaw’s “You’re a Sweet Little Heartache” with Helen Forrest singing can be heard in another scene (although you might be distracted by Jennifer Connelly putting on a silk stocking!) The movie also features a Shaw-like clarinet playing bandleader in some nightclub scenes. Although the score for the movie was written by James Horner, the big band scenes were arranged by Billy May. The clarinet playing in those scenes is unmistakably by Abe Most, whose unique tone resulted from using plastic reeds on his clarinet.

  2. Michael House says:

    I’m guessing here, but Shaw’s decision to arrange and record the somewhat obscure “Vilia” may have been inspired by Paul Whiteman’s 1934 recording of the tune. Although not very similar, both recordings have a singing quality and are played at a similar dance tempo. Its clear Shaw greatly admired the “King of Jazz,” as reflected in his use of former Whiteman arrangers Lennie Hayton, Bill Challis and William Grant Still for his early 1940s orchestra.

  3. Mike Zirpolo says:

    Great comments Michael!

    When Artie recorded this, he was still using a cane reed. He switched over to plastic in the summer of 1940, and continued using a plastic reed until at least 1946. Unlike the wonderful clarinetist Abe Most, who got a somewhat shrill sound using a plastic reed, Shaw somehow minimized that shrillness. In fact, Shaw was renowned for his lovely clarinet sound.

    1. Michael House says:

      I agree with your comments about the results obtained by Artie Shaw versus Abe Most using plastic reeds. For an apples to apples comparison, readers should play the 1940 Shaw recording of Stardust followed by the Billy May recreation featuring Abe Most in the “Swing Era.”

  4. John Greiner says:

    Hi Mike and Michael….
    Don’t really know how much the shrillness can be “credited” to the Brilhart Enduro reed as much as (obviously) the player themselves and of course the mouthpiece. Don’t know what type of synthetic/plastic reed Abe Most was using, but it sure could’ve been something different than an Enduro.
    I’ve also noticed in looking at many pictures of Artie playing (and posed) with his clarinet, I’ve seen the mouthpiece to be a Brilhart Ebolin (with the white tooth plate) as well as many pics clearly without the white tooth plate, meaning it could’ve been a Brilhart Ebolin “Special” or honestly anything else!
    I personally play on a Brilhart Artie Shaw model clarinet mouthpiece (modified) and use a standard cut Legere synthetic reed but my understanding is Arnold Brilhart didn’t make those ‘pieces until ’41 or ’42, making it impossible for Artie to have been playing his “signature” mouthpiece. Actually, I have no idea if he ever played on of them.
    Bottom line: Artie was simply just amazing and probably could’ve put a tin cup on the top of his clarinet and made it sound great.
    LOVE the blog, Mike and I’m glad I found it!

    John

  5. Mike Zirpolo says:

    Thanks John for some truly professional insights, and for your kind words about swingandbeyond.com

    Mike Zirpolo

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