“The Chant” (1939) Artie Shaw and Klezmer music

“The Chant”

Composed and arranged by Artie Shaw.

Recorded from a CBS Melody and Madness radio broadcast on March 12, 1939.

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 Hank Freeman, alto saxophone; Tony Pastor and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Bob Kitsis, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.

The story:  Over the years, a small amount of critical comment has been directed to Artie Shaw’s curiously strong ability to play Klezmer music. Klezmer music is defined as: “a musical tradition which parallels Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism. Around the fifteenth century, a tradition of secular (non liturgical) Jewish music was developed by musicians called klezmorim. They drew on devotional traditions extending back to biblical times. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. Due to the Ashkenazi lineage of this music, the lyrics, terminology, and song titles are typically in Yiddish.”  Although Shaw never recorded any full-scale Klezmer music, occasionally he wove some Klezmer-influenced playing into his performances. Listen, for example, to his recordings of “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise,” “Danza Lucumi,” “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume,” and of course, “Concerto for Clarinet.”

The lengthiest foray into Klezmer music in the Shaw canon is to be found on an aircheck of his clarinet and tom-tom showpiece “The Chant,” from the CBS network Melody and Madness radio show of March 12, 1939. In this performance, we hear most of Shaw’s Klezmer “licks,” some of which reappeared in later recorded Shaw performances of “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” and “Concerto for Clarinet,” as well as interpolations of “Bie Mir Bist Du Schoen” and “La Cinquantaine” (The Golden Wedding)., and others. (See below.)

I have often wondered how Shaw might have acquired his ability to play such remarkably authentic Klezmer music.(1)

Of course, it is very easy to assume that because Shaw was Jewish, his ability to play Klezmer music was somehow inborn. That would be, I think, a gross oversimplification. Shaw would have had to have heard this music when he was growing up to have absorbed it so well. An only child, Shaw lived the first few years of his life in the Jewish ghetto located on Manhattan’s lower east side, where he was born Abraham Isaac Arshawsky.(2) By his own account, Shaw’s father, Harry Arshawsky, was much more “Jewish” than his mother. He spoke broken English and often peppered his language with Yiddish words and sayings. He was the first person (of many) to refer to his son as mishugenah, the Yiddish word for “crazy person.” Shaw’s mother, Sarah Straus (pictured above right with Artie in 1945), was later remembered by Shaw’s sidemen as a little spitfire who tried to boss her son around even after he had become Artie Shaw. She read Down Beat, smoked cigarettes, and had a sharp tongue. She was a cross between a middle-aged hipster and a Jewish mama. She doted on her son, spoiled him, fought with him, and was the source of many of his personality traits.

Although Klezmer music is secular, it undoubtedly has roots extending into Jewish devotional music. Thus, the places Shaw would have had to have heard Klezmer music and/or its antecedents were at Jewish weddings or celebrations, or in shul (synagogue)Since Shaw’s recollections of his later childhood, spent in New Haven, Connecticut, are of a very un-Jewish environment, we can safely assume that he heard Klezmer music as a child in the Jewish ghetto that was located on Manhattan’s lower east side, not in New Haven. All his life, Shaw was a very secular Jew. (Indeed, he probably was an agnostic.) It appears that he did not attend Hebrew school or become Bar Mitzvah. I have found no references to him attending shul, except possibly for his mother’s funeral. So it is unlikely that he absorbed the antecedents of Klezmer music in a synagogue. Therefore, he most likely heard and soaked up the joyful sounds of Klezmer music, with its distinctive rhythms, at festive secular occasions in Manhattan’s Jewish ghetto as a child accompanied by his parents.

I will conclude this analysis by citing some comments Artie Shaw himself (pictured at right in 2000) made about how being Jewish might or might not have affected how he played music. At the end of 2002, writer Mike Gerber, author of the interesting book Jazz Jews, which took a studied look at the subject of how being Jewish affected (or not) how a musician played, interviewed Shaw. Several months earlier, Gerber had heard and recorded an National Public Radio interview with Artie Shaw. Among many other things, the maestro said in that interview was: “People ask if being Jewish has anything to do with your playing. If you listen to ‘Nightmare,’ my theme, and listen to what the clarinet plays, there’s an awful lot of Yiddish influence in that. You’re what you are. In music it is very revealing.” At the beginning of his interview with Shaw, Gerber decided to quote that language to Artie. Here is what ensued:

AS: “Being Jewish has everything to do with everything you are in a society that is abhorrent of Jews.” MG: “And if you listen to ‘Nightmare’…”  AS: “That has nothing to do with it! That is a minor key piece.” MG:  “But what you said (in the NPR interview)…” AS: “That’s horseshit! It has nothing to do with being Yiddish any more than everything else I did had to do with being Yiddish.”

(End of discussion. Here comes the anecdote that Shaw really wanted to deliver, which has nothing to do with his clarinet playing.) “I was on the (Johnny) Carson show one time, and we got into a discussion… (Someone asked,) What did you want to be when you grew up, when you were a kid? I said, ‘I wanted to grow up to be …a gentile.’ The band started to laugh, because there were a lot of Jews in there and they recognized it. And then after the laughter died down, I said, ‘And I made it.’  Artie Shaw is not Jewish; he’s a gentile icon.”(3)

Go figure. So very often, if we look to Artie Shaw himself to have explained something that was of importance to his life and music, we come away  baffled, but amused.

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Artie Shaw began his appearances on the CBS Old Gold Melody and Madness radio show on Sunday November 20, 1938. The show was broadcast live from CBS Radio Theater No. 3, located at 1657 Broadway, just south of 52nd Street on the west side of Broadway. It was a half-hour show running from 10:00 p.m. to 10:30. The star of the show was not Artie Shaw, but comedian Robert Benchley (shown at left clowning with Shaw in early 1939), whose style of comedy was not particularly congruent with the humor orientation of the young swing fans who were interested in Shaw’s music. Basically, these young listeners put up with Benchley’s comedy in order to hear Shaw and his band play a couple of tunes on each show. But we must remember that when this show started, Artie Shaw was not yet a star of the swing era. He was an up-and-coming young bandleader who had been allowed to grab onto the golden ring that any sponsored network radio show was for any bandleader. But by the time the show’s first 26 weeks had been completed, Shaw’s stature as a national entertainment figure had grown tremendously.

The stepping stones to Shaw’s great popularity were the ongoing tremendous sales of his Bluebird recording of “Begin the Beguine,” as well as the strong sales of his continuing series of  Bluebird recordings made in the fall of 1938 and the winter of 1939; his lengthy stay at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan, from where he broadcast very often over the NBC radio network (October 28, 1938 to February 2, 1939); the series of very successful theater engagements in New York and nearby major cities in February and March of 1939 (Strand Theater NYC – February 3 – 16 (marquee shown in photo above right); Paramount Theater Newark, NJ – February 17 – 23; Fox Theater Philadelphia – February 24 – March 2; Stanley Theater Pittsburgh – March 3 – 10. Shaw was making between $4,000 and $6,500 a week at each of these theaters. This money was in addition to the money he was making weekly from the Melody and Madness radio show ($2,250), and his Bluebird record sales. In addition, Shaw and his band appeared in a ten-minute “short subject” (forerunner of today’s music videos) made for Warner Brothers/Vitaphone at their Brooklyn, NY studio, probably in mid-March. This film is entitled Symphony of Swing.(4)

Money is always an issue whenever a big band is concerned, because the leader’s constant overhead in operating such a band is always heavy. Salaries of performers are always the largest expense. But then there are costs for transportation of the performers, music stands, stage sets, and music from one gig to the next. And costs for arrangers to make arrangements that fit the band’s style. Costs for booking agency commissions, which at 10-15% of all grosses, were substantial. Costs for the management of the bandleader’s business, including his personal manager, road manager, equipment manager, secretaries, accountants, offices, they all add up.

When Shaw started his band, he entered into various agreements with New England ballroom owner Si Shribman to cover the weekly shortfalls that resulted when the Shaw band’s income did not meet or exceed its expenses. Shaw’s understanding of this arrangement was that Shribman was loaning him money. Shribman was non-committal about this business arrangement until he saw Shaw begin to earn substantial sums of money in early 1939. Then he claimed that he was not loaning money to Shaw, but that he was purchasing a percentage of the band. We can safely assume that when Shaw learned of this he was not happy. Nevertheless, to resolve this vexing issue at this critical time in the Shaw band’s development without litigation, his attorney (Andrew Weinberger), his booking agent (General Artists Corp./GAC), and his personal manager all worked in concert to convince him to pay Shribman a sum of money to settle his claims, after which there would be no question that Artie Shaw owned 100% of his band. It was reported that the sum paid to resolve this matter was $22,500. (Multiply by at least 10 to get the value in today’s dollars.) (5)

That was the bad news.The good news was that Victor/Bluebird Records, in order to keep Shaw on their labels after their recording supervisor Eli Oberstein left Victor to form his own recording enterprises (and threatened to take Shaw with him), signed Shaw to a two-year contract which guaranteed him $50,000 per year as a guarantee against his royalties from actual sales of his records. (As it turned out, Shaw’s royalties far exceeded his guarantee during the term of that contract, which was signed in March of 1939.) (6)

As if all of this was not enough to scramble Shaw’s thinking during this period, other things began to happen which destabilized him further. Newark, New Jersey newspapers carried stories of a minor riot at the Newark Paramount Theater at Shaw’s first show there. Police had to be used to control  the mobs of kids who waited in line outside the theater, and then began to rush the stage inside the theater as Shaw and his band tried to perform. Some 60 young people climbed onstage and had to be removed. One person was injured (he broke his leg) when he leaped from a balcony box to the stage.(7) Similar chaotic scenes would take place when Shaw appeared at various venues throughout 1939. His anxiety began to increase.

By the time of the performance presented in this post, Artie Shaw was well on his way to becoming a major star of the swing era, with all of the good and bad that entailed.

The music: “The Chant” began its existence as an original composition/arrangement by Artie Shaw called “Ubangi.” It was created by Artie in the first months of the life of Shaw’s New Music band, which was his first band with standard swing era instrumentation (as opposed to his string quartet band that lasted from the summer of 1936 into early March of 1937, when it was disbanded). That means that “Ubangi” originated in March or April of 1937. Shaw first recorded a spirited performance of “Ubangi” for the Thesaurus Transcription Service on April 28, 1937. He followed that up with a commercial recording of it for Brunswick Records on August 4, 1937. But Brunswick called that recording “The Chant” because it was thought that Shaw’s young fans didn’t know what the word “Ubangi” meant.

Many commentators have stated that “The Chant” was an example of Shaw using a junglistic, tom-tom pounding, rabble rousing piece in imitation of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” This clearly was not the case (at least at first), because Goodman’s recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” was not made for Victor Records until July 6, 1937, and it was not released for several weeks after that. By the time Goodman’s Victor recording of “Sing,Sing,Sing” was on the market, Shaw had been playing “Ubangi”/”The Chant” for six months. Shaw’s earlier recordings of “Ubangi” and “The Chant” do resemble the live recording that is presented here, but only partially. What actually happened was that “The Chant,” as heard here, was the result of a changes that happened during early 1939 for two reasons: First, the need of the Shaw band to have an exhibitionistic block-buster for presentation at theaters; and second, to provide a vehicle for the band’s explosive new drummer, Buddy Rich.

One of the earliest reviews to mention the Klezmer elements present in “The Chant” was this one, which appeared in Variety, resplendent with the show-biz argot Variety originated and perfected: “‘The Chant’ is particularly socko. Shaw’s crew finales with a hodge-podge arrangement including ‘Bei Mir,’ ‘Joseph, Joseph,’ a couple of Russian tunes and a few Yiddish froelichs. Its an almost Identical bit to the container of Benny Goodman, who appeared at the Earle two weeks ago.”(8) Obviously, the person who wrote that review knew something about “Russian tunes” and “Yiddish froelichs.” Much later, in 2002, music scholar Mark Slobin included this observation in his book American Klezmer: “The tune (‘The Chant’) itself plays on the close, presumably coincidental, relationship between the ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ and ‘Khoshen Kale, Mazeltov’…a popular Jewish wedding recessional.” Slobin also quotes Hankus Netsky, who observed that Shaw in this version of “The Chant” quotes from “…’Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,’ ‘Yossell, Yossell,’ and relatively obscure Klezmer tunes such as ‘Patsch Tants’ and the Ukranian ‘Kamarinska’.”(9)

The plunger-muted trumpet at the beginning of this performance was played by Chuck Peterson. The trombone solo by George Arus; the tenor saxophone solo by Georgie Auld; the open trumpet by Bernie Privin. Shaw and drummer Rich are the other soloists. Note the doubling of the tempo near the end: this was one of Rich’s trademarks. It showed off his blinding speed – and thrilled audiences. (Buddy Rich is pictured at left.)

(1) Although Artie Shaw could and did weave elements of Klezmer music into his playing, the kings of Klezmer music in a swing context were trumpeter Ziggy Elman, (whose “Frahlich in Swing” became a hit pop song when Johnny Mercer, a gentile from Georgia, added a lyric which transformed in into “And The Angels Sing”), and the marvelous (and marvelously named) clarinetist Sam Musiker, who worked with Gene Krupa’s band.

(2) See Chapter 12 of Shaw’s book The Trouble With Cinderella for the whole story of his change of name and identity from Abraham Isaac Arshawsky to Art (later Artie) Shaw.

(3) Jazz Jews by Mike Gerber, (2009) 73-74.

(4) The film Symphony of Swing, which is nine minutes forty-four seconds in length, was made probably in mid-March 1939 (near in time to this broadcast recording of “The Chant”) at the Warner Brothers/Vitaphone Studio in Brooklyn, New York. The film was released by Warner Brothers on December 30, 1939. Here is a link to that film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw0l2Nr3DkM

(5)  Variety March 15, 1939, 1.

(6) Shaw recorded three million-plus selling records for Victor/Bluebird in 1938 under his original contract: “Begin the Beguine,” “Back Bay Shuffle,” and “Nightmare.” Under the contract he signed in March of 1939, five more million sellers were recorded: “Traffic Jam,” “Frenesi,” “Summit Ridge Drive,” “Star Dust,” and “Dancing in the Dark.” In addition, many of Shaw’s other recordings from the period 1938 to 1941 were big sellers.

(7) As the young man with the broken leg was removed from the stage, Shaw went to the microphone and said,“John Wilkes Booth, I presume…” which got no reaction. He later opined that his comment got no reaction because no one in the audience knew who John Wilkes Booth was.

(8) The Variety review.of the Shaw band’s February 24, 1939 appearance at the Fox Theater in Philadelphia was entitled “Variety House Reviews – Fox Philly,”  and it appeared in the March 1, 1939 issue of Variety at page 45. The only aspects of “The Chant” that resemble Benny Goodman’s “Sing,Sing,Sing” were the clarinet and tom-tom sequences.

(9) Jazz Jews, 72-73.

The recording presented here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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5 Comments

  1. Another fine article that is a good reminder of the Jewish influences on Swing and entertainment in general. Jewish people of that era had to walk a fine line in their quest to avoid more discrimination than was already entrenched in the culture of those times. Jews never asked for or received “Minority” status even as they were banned from many hotels and country clubs and strict quotas were set at Ivy League Universities. For those unaware of this issue take a look at the 1947 film starring Gregory Peck. “Gentleman’s Agreement”

  2. Another wonderful Zirpolo blog about the historical, cultural importance of this kind of music. Thanks for digging into the side issues of this period, Michael.

  3. As a young man, Shaw would have familiar with the jazz tune “Palesteena” which shows a strong Klezmer influence. More recently, the Klezmer aspect of “Palesteena” was brilliantly emphasized by Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern on the album “Summit Reunion.”

  4. SO many interesting things about this recording…
    1. At the 4:40 mark, it’s basically an exact quote from the Gramercy Five recording of “Dr. Livingston, I Presume”. (Is this perhaps “Yossell Yossell”?).
    2. 6:22-6:30 is an exact lick/pattern he used about two yrs. later in the studio recording of Concerto For Clarinet.
    As always, his supreme command of the instrument is on full display. Especially the arpeggio work between 5:53 and the 6 minute mark. His mastery, control and overall fluency of the extreme upper range is also (as usual) on display.
    Thanks for doing this, Mike! It had been a while since I listened to this recording and it’s amazing how many “new” things jump out at me!
    Lastly, I think it’s worthy to note that Artie’s recording of “Lament” was also (maybe primarily?) titled “Rabbi” (“Nostalgia” as well) and although it’s a Ray Conniff composition/arrangement, there are again, many instances of Artie’s Klezmer influences in that recording from June of ’45.

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