The story: It is always challenging to write objectively and accurately about Artie Shaw’s music and personality. On the one hand, much of the music Shaw made during the swing era was wonderful, indeed great. On the other, when exploring Shaw’s music, one usually encounters a good many myths and distortions surrounding the man, and sometimes his music.These often have their genesis in pronouncements Shaw himself made as early as the late 1930s (and for decades thereafter), when journalists were insatiably curious about this handsome young (and later not so young) man, who was articulate and intelligent, and could play the clarinet and lead his swing band so brilliantly. They constantly besieged him, seeking quotes, interviews, pictures, feature stories. For awhile, he gave them what they wanted because he understood that in order to have success in the music business on the scale he wanted and eventually had, one must interact productively with the press.The media was awash in Shaw stories, pictures and features. Disentangling fact from fiction in these can be a chore.
The year 1939 was the year when Shaw went from being a virtuoso clarinetist who led a very good swing band, to becoming a swing era superstar whose band appeared almost constantly on network radio (sine qua non to great success during the swing era), whose records sold in the millions, whose band appeared everywhere they could across the nation for top money, and who appeared in short musical films, and a feature film made by M-G-M in Hollywood. The upward arc of Shaw’s climb to success was interrupted in April and May of 1939 when he was stricken by a blood disease that almost killed him, and sidelined him for several weeks just as his band arrived in Hollywood to make the film and appear at the Palomar Ballroom for an extended engagement.
During the time all of this was happening, Shaw also had to maintain his clarinet playing at virtuoso levels, which was easy enough when he was working with his band, because he was then playing the instrument six to eight hours every day. In addition, he had to keep his sensibilities as a jazz musician, intact and healthy. This is difficult under “normal” circumstances, when one can think about the music one is playing, can select music that is conducive to jazz, and can experiment to see what works best. As success came to Shaw, all of these musical considerations became more difficult to deal with. Increasingly, his time was also spent in discussions with his personal manager, his booking agency, his band manager, advertising executives, network radio executives, publicists, venue owners, music publishers and, alas, the media. He also had to be the musical director of his band. This involved deciding what music would be played, how it would be arranged, how it would be rehearsed, and how it would be performed. He also had to deal with the musicians in his band, all of whom were talented and some of whom were temperamental. These issues wore on Shaw.
While he and his band were appearing in Boston in August of 1939, Shaw was involved in incidents where his fans, whom he later described as hysterical young people, rushed at him in a street, and began tearing his clothes off and pulling his hair out.They gouged their initials into the paint of his car, and indeed turned a car he was riding in over in a frenzy of “adulation.” Soon thereafter, there was an incident where Shaw’s band appeared an hour late at an engagement just north of the U.S-Canada border near Buffalo, New York, (through no fault of their own – Artie himself was at the venue when the gig was supposed to have started), and the venue manager began harassing Shaw about it, threatening to reduce the agreed amount Artie was to receive for playing the dance. Shaw pulled his band off the bandstand before the scheduled ending time of the gig, and there was a near-riot in the ballroom. Lawsuits flew, and the press had a field day. Shaw’s stress level increased.
The Shaw band toured throughout the Midwest for the first three weeks of September, then returned to Manhattan for a ten-day engagement (September 22-October 2) at the Strand Theater in Times Square, playing five shows a day.
Shaw’s last appearance on the weekly NBC Old Gold Melody and Madness radio show was on October 3. He and the radio show came to a parting of the ways for a complex set of reasons including some bad press, Shaw’s ever-increasing stress, the fact that the concept of the show, Shaw’s music and the offbeat comedy of Robert Benchley, made an incongruous combination, (Shaw wanted his own radio show, not an unreasonable wish given his popularity), and the overriding fact that he was exhausted from four months of non-stop work and travel after he returned to work after he had nearly died. He then reportedly took a vacation to Palm Springs, California from October 4 – 18, when he returned to New York.
For almost all of 1939, Shaw had no personal life away from his band, because he was almost never away from his band. While he was in California he became involved in a relationship with beautiful Hollywood starlet Betty Grable. The media loved it. That relationship soon became fraught with difficulty.
By the time the Shaw band opened at the Cafe’ Rouge (on October 19), Artie discovered that the hot water he had jumped out of just before he took his vacation had gotten hotter while he was away. A lengthy interview he had given to Michael Mok of the New York Post shortly before it appeared in that newspaper on September 26, proved to be damaging. Among the opinions Shaw had enunciated: “…I don’t like the crowds. I’m not interested in giving people what they want. I’m interested in making music. Autograph hunters? To hell with them!” And: “My friends and advisors tell me that I’m a damned fool. ‘Look here, Artie,’ they say, ‘you can’t do that! Those people MADE you.’ Want to know my answer? I tell them if I was made by a bunch of morons, that’s just too bad. And besides if they made me, what do they want my autograph for? You don’t worship your own creature, do you?” The waves of bad publicity that were caused by that interview continued. Artie was now so stressed that he was having constant headaches. The stresses continued unabated, indeed they increased. The press was more interested than ever in Shaw. In yet another ill-advised interview, this one with Dave Dexter of the music tabloid (later magazine) Down Beat that was published on October 15, he stated that he: “hated the music business,” and was going to leave it “…just as soon as I’m fixed for life financially, and that time isn’t far off.”
Predictably, the end came all too soon. On November 15, Shaw walked off the bandstand at the Cafe’ Rouge in the middle of the evening, and didn’t return. Frantic and exhausting discussions between Shaw’s managers, agents, and other business associates and him for more than two days ultimately came to nothing. Finally, he had a meeting with his band on November 18, when he told them he was leaving, and then got into his car and began driving. Some time later, he reached Acapulco, Mexico, where he sequestered himself. His engagement at the Cafe’ Rouge had some seven weeks to go. His contract with Victor Records had not been even half completed. Engagements booked into early 1940 had to be cancelled. This was a major catastrophe for Shaw’s booking agency, General Artists Corp.
That, essentially, was the end of Artie Shaw’s first great band. But it wasn’t the end of Shaw’s musical career. He would return to music and then leave again and again over the next fifteen years. Each time he returned, he made fine music. His first return to full-time bandleading happened in the summer of 1940. Although he had been compelled by his contract with Victor Records to enter the recording studios in Hollywood (where he was by then living) on two occasions in the first half of 1940 (a major hit, “Frenesi” was among the recordings he made then), Shaw had no standing band until June of 1940. He had used studio musicians to make those Victor records.
But behind the scenes, Shaw and his managers were actively pursuing opportunities that would feature him and a band on a sponsored network radio show, and in another feature film. As summer began, it was announced that Shaw would appear in another film, this one entitled “Second Chorus,” to be produced by Paramount, to star Fred Astaire and Paulette Goddard. He was also selected to appear on the weekly George Burns and Gracie Allen NBC network radio show. He now had no choice but to form his own standing band, which he did in late June. The first Burns and Allen show aired on July 1.
He was aided greatly in this process by the coincidental disbanding of Benny Goodman’s band, which had been playing in southern California. Goodman’s chronic sciatica had by the summer of 1940 become so painful that he was advised to have surgery to alleviate some of the discomfort. He left his band in early July, and immediately the following Goodman sidemen transferred to Shaw: lead alto saxophonist Les Robinson (Shaw’s lead alto player from 1937 through 1939, who had been Artie’s contact in the Goodman band); tenor saxists Jerry Jerome and Bus Bassey; trombonist Vernon Brown; pianist Johnny Guarnieri; and drummer Nick Fatool. Around this strong nucleus of players, Shaw built his new band. His first trumpeter was Billy Butterfield, who was also a fine jazz soloist. (See below.)[i] His eventual first trombonist, Jack Jenney, was also an excellent jazz soloist (especially on ballads), had very recently decided to give up his own band, which had been commercially unsuccessful. [ii]
The instrumentation of this band was that of a standard swing band (three trumpets; two [sometimes three] trombones; four saxophones; and four rhythm) plus six violins, two violas, and one cello.The string section was gathered for Shaw by violinist Alex Beller, who acted as concertmaster for the strings. This band started out very good, and just got better as time passed. Shaw’s own playing at this juncture, despite his relative inactivity for the previous seven-plus months, was superb.(*)
Despite the almost immediate cohesiveness of the musicians Shaw had hired, and the continuous demands of ballroom operators and theaters across the nation for personal appearances, Shaw vetoed all proposals to take this group on the road. The band remained in Hollywood. At first, they rehearsed, played the Burns and Allen radio shows weekly, and through late July and early August worked on Second Chorus. Shaw meanwhile continued to reside in his house on Summit Ridge Drive with M-G-M starlet Lana Turner, whom he had met while filming Dancing Co-ed the previous summer. They had married earlier in 1940.
[i] Butterfield sometimes shared the first trumpet book with George “Jumbo” Wendt, a Los Angeles-based musician. Although both were powerful players, it is rather easy to differentiate between their playing: Wendt had a faster vibrato and a more piercing sound. Although Wendt can be heard playing lead parts on “Marinella,” “Danza Lucumi,” and the first part of “Dancing In the Dark” (including the solo), Butterfield’s fat, ringing lead trumpet tone most often defined the sound of Shaw’s 1940-41 brass section, including on the brilliant finale of “Dancing in the Dark.”
[ii] Jack Jenney had to complete commitments with his own band before he could join Shaw. Consequently, he did not appear in the film Second Chorus.He joined the band in time for its first Victor recording session, which was on September 7, 1940.
(*) It was at this time that Shaw began to use plastic reeds on his clarinet instead of the more common cane reeds.
Composed by Hoagy Carmichael; arranged by Artie Shaw and Lennie Hayton.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Victor on October 7, 1940 in Hollywood, California.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Charles William “Billy” Butterfield, George “Jumbo” Wendt, Jimmy (Jack) Cathcart, trumpets; Truman Eliot “Jack” Jenney and Vernon “Red” Brown, trombones; Les Robinson and Neely Plumb, alto saxophones; Clarence “Bus” Bassey and Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophones; John A. “Johnny” Guarnieri, piano; Alton Reynolds “Al” Hendrickson, guitar; Jud De Naut, bass; Nicholas “Nick” Fatool, drums; Truman Boardman, Ted Klages, Bill Brower, Bob Morrow, Alex Beller, Eugene Lamas, violins; Allen Harshman and Keith Collins, violas; Fred Goerner, cello.
The music: In late March of 1940, Artie Shaw and his new bride, Lana Turner, took a honeymoon of sorts. Lana had never seen New York, but Artie was a denizen of Manhattan. So they decided to take a train trip, departing Union Station in Los Angeles, and heading to New York (via Chicago) on the Santa Fe Super Chief. When they arrived in New York, they stayed at a luxurious hotel, and spent the evenings dining in Manhattan’s best restaurants, sometimes taking in a Broadway show, then making the rounds of the dozens of venues in New York that then presented live music.Lana loved swing and jazz, and courtesy of the M-G-M dancing school, she was an excellent dancer.
At one such venue, the Ice Terrace Room of Hotel New Yorker, they danced to the music of Bob Crosby’s band. The de facto leader and music director of the Crosby crew was dance band veteran Gil Rodin. Artie and Gil exchanged pleasantries during the evening, but what struck Shaw most about the Crosby band was the trumpet playing of a 23-year-old from Ohio, Billy Butterfield. Butterfield played some lead and some jazz solos. The sound he got on trumpet was big, yet velvety, and he had a great high register, plenty of power and tons of technique. The next day, Shaw contacted Butterfield, and revealed that he was soon going to be doing some high-profile work in Hollywood, that would involve a movie and a network radio show, and that when he put together a band to do this work, he wanted Billy to be his first and solo trumpet. A tentative agreement was reached, and soon thereafter, Butterfield left the Crosby band, and jobbed around in New York and Chicago, waiting for Shaw’s call. It came in mid-June.
One of the things Shaw resented about the chaotic months of 1939 when he was becoming a swing superstar, was that he had no time then to work on music for his band to play. He certainly remedied that in the first half of 1940. He collaborated extensively on the arrangements that he recorded with studio musicians on two recording dates in the first half of 1940, and he conceived the overall structure of the arrangement we hear of “Star Dust” then also. Shaw had a good arrangement in his 1939 band library on “Star Dust.” Basically, it was a straightforward dance chart that showcased his solo clarinet. But Butterfield’s trumpet playing inspired Shaw to create something new: a dramatic setting for three virtuoso solos. Shaw’s blueprint included a soaring open trumpet solo that he wrote out for Billy Butterfield to start the piece, and then space for him to play a rhapsodic, improvised clarinet solo, and lastly, an eight-bar spot for trombone virtuoso Jack Jenney to improvise. The backgrounds for the soloists were to be subtle and shifting, employing the reeds, strings and brass. He and arranger Lennie Hayton, who had been a successful radio conductor in New York in the mid-1930s (whom Shaw had worked with then), was in 1940 trying to break into film work in Hollywood, collaborated on the rest of the minimalistic chart during the summer of 1940.
Butterfield’s solo at the beginning of the arrangement starts without the orchestra.They pick him up ever so gently, and he delivers the melodic paraphrase of the melody of “Star Dust,” which was written by Shaw, with exactly the golden trumpet sound and ringing authority Artie had envisioned. The strings spell Butterfield, and play melodically for eight bars, setting up his return for the climax of his solo, a titanic high E-flat, that I have heard more than one trumpeter describe as orgasmic. The orchestra plays an eight bar interlude after Butterfield to set-up Shaw’s entry on clarinet. Artie then plays a brilliantly constructed improvised solo that includes some choice Shavian high-notes, including a singing high A. Many musicians have surmised that Shaw wrote out this solo beforehand because of its perfect structure, but he didn’t. At least one other recording of this band playing “Star Dust” exists, and it has a different clarinet solo.
Trombonist Jack Jenney (1910-1945) was well-known within the music business as a virtuoso performer who had uncommon skill as an improviser on ballads. However, he was little-known to the public in 1940. After his solo on Shaw’s “Star Dust” record became known, first to musicians, then to swing fans, and then to people who knew little or nothing about music, he became a legendary figure.
Music historian Gunther Schuller, in his classic study of the music of the swing era, made these observations about Jenney’s solo: “For me. The most memorable moment of the performance has always been Jack Jenney’s magnificent trombone solo, considered in its day for all its romantic cast, a major breakthrough statement, both in technical and expressive terms. The (for the time) extraordinary octave leap to high F was admired far and wide by musicians and sophisticated audiences, not only for the ease with which Jenney’s managed the deed, but for his elegance and sensitivity of phrasing. It must be remembered that few trombonists had ventured into that uppermost range of the instrument – Tommy Dorsey went above his favorite high note, D-flat, only once in his recording career – and if someone like Bobby Byrne or Trummy Young occasionally tackled a high F, it was almost always by a step-wise approach, never head-on in such a difficult, dare-devil octave leap. Jenney’s rich, full-bodied sound added to the emotional appeal of the passage.”(**)
Jenney’s solo on the broadcast version of “Star Dust” is also a totally different improvisation from the Victor recording.
Jack Jenney’s solo on Artie Shaw’s recording of “Star Dust” was in many ways the beginning of a new school of velvet-toned and elegant but technically demanding trombone performance in jazz and American popular music. Those who followed the trail he blazed included such giants of the instrument as Urbie Green, J.J. Johnson, Milt Bernhart, Dick Nash and Bill Watrous.
(**) The Swing Era…The Development of Jazz – 1930-1945 by Gunther Schuller, Oxford University Press (1989), page 704.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.