“The Grabtown Grapple”
Composed by Artie Shaw and Buster Harding; head arrangement worked out by Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five for Victor on January 9-10, 1945 in New York.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Morris Rayman, bass; Lou Fromm, drums.
The story: I think that people will generally agree that music, along with most other human activities, is better when it is performed with inspiration. Much of the music of the swing era was inspired because it was made in front of enthusiastic audiences who let the performers know by their applause and cheers that they really appreciated the music. But in the rather sterile and often unwelcoming confines of a recording studio, where do performers find inspiration? Sometimes one or more of the musicians in a group will feel inspired for whatever reason when they come to a recording session, and their inspiration will be contagious. Sometimes, even under the most inauspicious of circumstances, a performer will do something spontaneously that will positively affect his/her fellow performers.
On the stage of the Strand Theater in New York, January 1945. L-R: Dodo Marmarosa, Roy Eldridge, Artie Shaw, Barney Kessel, Morrie Rayman.
On the evening of January 9, 1945, Artie Shaw and his big band had been in the Victor recording studio in Manhattan, located at 155 East 24th Street, in a former stable, from 1:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., making recordings. In that seven and one half hour span, they had attempted at least 29 separate takes in order to make four acceptable recordings. It had been an exhausting slog. At 9:00, Shaw sent all of the members of his big band home for the evening, but he told the members of the small group drawn from his big band, the musicians who with him made up Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five, to take a one-hour break, and be back in the studio at 10:00 p.m. to make some small group recordings. They dutifully complied with their leader’s instructions and returned after the hour long break to make the first recording by this edition of the Gramercy Five, “The Grabtown Grapple.” (1)
Where on this cold winter night in Manhattan did Artie Shaw find the inspiration he needed to make “The Grabtown Grapple” something special? My informed speculation is that a certain woman may have had something to do with it. Cherchez la femme!
Stunningly beautiful women were drawn to Artie Shaw. Why this happened was no mystery. He was handsome and immensely talented as a musician and bandleader. He had had vast success on radio, in the movies and on the stages of many of the largest theaters across the USA. His name was constantly mentioned in the mass media. He had served with distinction leading a band in combat zones of the Pacific Theater of World War II. He was a star. (Above left: Artie Shaw solos with his Navy band on a ship in the Pacific – 1943.) A very limited listing of the women in his life before 1944 would include movie starlets Betty Grable and Lana Turner, singer and movie starlet Lena Horne, and composer Jerome Kern’s attractive daughter Betty.
When Shaw returned to California from military service at the end of 1943, he was not in good health either physically or emotionally. Slowly, through early 1944, he regained his health. He lived alone in his house in Beverly Hills, California, located at 906 North Bedford Drive, during this time, but was a sought-after guest at the almost constant cycle of parties held at the homes of people involved in the movie making business. At these parties were many beautiful, young women. It was not long before he was drawn to a particularly beautiful young woman whom he met at one such party in 1944, Ava Gardner.
I am hardly an expert when it comes to beautiful women, however I do appreciate feminine beauty. There are many beautiful women in this world, but very few are so stunningly, incredibly beautiful that when one sees them, one becomes breathless, light-headed. Ava Gardner was such a woman. Her initial impact on Artie Shaw was unquestionably powerful. I have a copy of a recorded interview of Shaw that took place in the 1990s, fifty years after his liaison with Ava Gardner was over, when Shaw was in his eighties. The somewhat obtuse interviewer was questioning Shaw about what made Ava so very attractive. Artie excitedly attempted to explain this, but finally gave up and said simply: “Have you ever seen Ava Gardner?”(2)
Among many of Ava’s bewitching personality traits when she and Artie Shaw were together, perhaps the most attractive was that she didn’t put on airs. Although she was certainly aware of her effect on men, she was nevertheless just herself, and at that time, that meant that she was a girl who had been born in rural Grabtown, North Carolina, and was something of a tomboy. She loved swing music, loved being around Artie’s band members, and generally loved to have a good time. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who was very much on the Shaw scene then, once told me (3) without a trace of irony in his voice that Ava was a lot of fun to be around. She had a great sense of humor, and was quite comfortable participating with Shaw’s band members in their jokes and story-telling, including the off-color ones, which she particularly relished.(4)
Ava Gardner began living with Shaw at his house on Bedford Drive in the summer of 1944. Her career in movies (she had been contracted to MGM since 1941), which to that time had consisted of basically unbilled walk-ons with little or no dialog, was at a standstill. She dedicated herself to being Artie Shaw’s woman. She was in love.
The music: “The Grabtown Grapple” was obliquely dedicated to Ava Gardner by Artie, who named the piece. It was loosely organized by arranger Buster Harding, who had recently created the wonderful showcase for Shaw’s jazz clarinet in a big band context, the earthy composition/arrangement called “Bedford Drive” (commemorating Shaw’s then-current home). In fact, “Bedford Drive” was the last tune the Shaw big band had worked on on January 9 before Shaw sent them home. (It took 10 takes for that number to be performed in a way that satisfied Artie.)
The tedium that must have built-up over the hours Shaw had just spent in the studio with his big band had vanished by the time he began working on “The Grabtown Grapple.” Nevertheless, the Gramercy Five’s performance here is highly disciplined. Artie excelled at informally putting the pieces of a small band arrangement together in a way that highlighted the jazz solos, which he did here. (Shaw also collaborated with Harding in actually creating the chord sequence and riffs that make up “The Grabtown Grapple.”)
The ensemble opening passages (Shaw’s clarinet, Eldridge’s cup-muted trumpet, Kessel’s guitar and pianist Marmarosa’s right hand, in a tight mix), are characterized by their unity and zest. Dodo Marmarosa (shown above right), takes a quick flight through the tune’s eight-bar bridge, then the ensemble finishes the first chorus.
The jazz soloists are Barney Kessel on guitar, paying homage to his idol, Charlie Christian; Roy Eldridge on his acrid cup-muted trumpet, playing with rhythmic intensity (hear how Dodo comps him in the first eight bars); then Marmarosa again on piano, this time for sixteen bars, playing with great inventiveness and stunning technique; and Shaw, also very rhythmic, on his Zen-like clarinet. After these solos, the ensemble returns for some fierce riffing (drummer Lou Fromm says Oh! behind this passage), a bit of Morrie Rayman’s walking bass, and the serpentine finale.
Lou Fromm provides admirable support for the Gramercy Five throughout this performance. Basically, he plays his snare drum with brushes, ads a few bass drum kicks in strategic places, and claps his high-hat cymbals together once before the coda. His playing is the acme of economy, taste and swing.
The story continues: As one might suspect, Artie Shaw was the dominant partner in the Shaw-Gardner relationship. When Artie was working, their relationship was at its best. Ava was with Shaw for most if not all of the time he and his band were on tour from late 1944 into March of 1945. Ava loved the excitement of traveling with the band and hearing it play every night, especially in big theaters with large, enthusiastic audiences. (Shaw is shown above left besieged by autograph hunters at the Chicago Theater – December 1944.) She marveled at how wonderfully Artie could and did play the clarinet, and how audiences reacted to that. It reinforced her feelings of love and almost worship for Artie.
Shaw’s feelings about Ava were different. He definitely liked her, and very much enjoyed appearing at various places with her. Invariably, they caused a sensation. But after Shaw and Gardner returned to Hollywood in the spring of 1945, work for Artie’s band began to gradually diminish. Consequently, he spent more time at home with Ava. This caused him to critically appraise Ava in various ways, and led to him becoming increasingly critical of Ava’s overall lack of education and cultivation. At times, he was less than sensitive about this.
Occasionally, Shaw would host a sort of salon at his home with friends from the movie colony. Once, when the living room of the Bedford Drive house was full of literary types from Hollywood, and Artie was holding court, Ava, doing what she had done many times before, “slipped off her shoes and tucked her bare feet under her on a chair.” Artie looked at her coldly and said in front of everyone For God’s sake, what are you doing? Do you think you’re still in a tobacco field? (5) She left the room in tears.
Artie then decided that he would play Pygmalion with Ava in order to “improve” her intellectually. He gave her a list of books to purchase. On the list were: The Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, and The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks, both by Thomas Mann. Artie’s reading list also included Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. Ava struggled to extract from these tomes whatever it was that Artie wanted her to learn, presumably so that she could participate in a way that pleased him in conversations with him and his friends about literature. It made no difference. No matter what Ava did (except for one thing), it was simply inadequate in Artie’s view. (Ava is shown at left in the library in Shaw’s Bedford Drive house in 1945.)
One of Shaw’s literary friends, Hollywood writer Budd Schulberg, later observed that “Artie was a male chauvinist.” This was only half true. Artie Shaw was an equal opportunity chauvinist. Gender made no difference.
As one would expect, these developments were not helping the Shaw-Gardner relationship. Artie then suggested that Ava undergo psychoanalysis. At the first therapy session, it became obvious to the analyst that Ava’s self-confidence was at a nadir: she thought that she was an idiot. The analyst then administered an intelligence test to Ava, which revealed that she possessed well above average intelligence.
Artie and Ava continued their relationship despite these issues. For reasons that now are unclear, they married on October 17, 1945. Presumably to please Artie, Ava took Darwin’s On The Origin of Species on the honeymoon she and Shaw had at Lake Tahoe.
The marriage proved to be the beginning of the end of the Shaw-Gardner liaison. Soon after returning to Los Angeles after the honeymoon, Mark Hellinger contacted Ava about starring in a feature film. Hellinger was a colorful character who had worked at Warner Brothers before the war as an associate producer. He had recently set up his own independent production company, and had produced his first feature film called Swell Guy, starring Sonny Tufts, which was a flop. His second production, which would star Ava and another young unknown actor, Burt Lancaster, would be called The Killers. It was loosely based on a short story published by Ernest Hemingway in 1927.(6) Ava was thrilled at this prospect of course, because it represented a huge opportunity to jump-start her stalled career as an actress. Production of the film started in early 1946 and wrapped on June 28,1946. The film opened in theaters on August 28, 1946, and was a hit. It launched the careers of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner as enduring Hollywood stars. It also spelled the end of the Shaw-Gardner marriage.
Ava seemed to bloom on the set of The Killers. Everyone involved with the film was enchanted by her. She told everyone involved with the production to call her “Ava,” not “Miss Gardner,” which was customary then. On occasion, Artie would accompany Ava to the studio, and stick around to watch scenes being filmed. (Shaw is shown at left talking with Robert Siodmak, the director of The Killers, while Ava listens.) But Artie, long accustomed to being the sun in his solar system, quickly became bored with this, and returned home alone. In the wake of the success of The Killers, offers for Ava to appear in films poured in.
As Ava was becoming more and more busy and successful as an actress, Artie folded his 1944-1945 band in November of 1945, because of diminishing work for it. Shaw then worked intermittently through much of 1946 making recordings with studio musicians in Los Angeles. He had no standing band. He sold the Bedford Drive house early in 1946, and then rented a much smaller house where he and Ava lived, uneasily.
As Ava’s career expanded, Artie’s shrunk. Ava, now beginning to have success in her career, and more self-confidence, was less inclined to conform to Artie’s wishes. Clashes occurred. Ava moved out. Their divorce took place in late 1946.
Artie Shaw was arrogant. He was pedantic. But he could also be very engaging, indeed charming. Like all of us, he was a combination of many things. Unfortunately, for those who somehow found themselves in his personal life, sooner or later they would come to learn that it was impossible for him to sustain close interpersonal relationships for lengthy periods of time. This was true in his relationships with wives, lovers, his two sons, and even his mother. Their relationship was fraught with disagreements, arguments, recriminations and manipulations. But Shaw couldn’t divorce his mother, so they settled into an uneasy on-again-off again (mostly off-again) affiliation that lasted until her death, which occurred on September 2, 1964, when she was eighty, and Artie was 54.
The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) The information about Artie Shaw’s activities in the Victor recording studio in Manhattan on January 9-10, 1945 come from Vladimir Simosko’s book, Artie Shaw …A Musical Biography and Discography, (2000) at 196.
(2) The best description I have ever encountered of Ava Gardner was the one George Jacobs, Frank Sinatra’s long-time assistant, included in his book entitled Mr. S …My Life with Frank Sinatra. The first time Jacobs saw Ava, she was wearing sun glasses. When she took them off, “The first thing to hit me were those cats’ eyes of hers, green with flecks of gold, and hypnotic…” The rest of Jacobs’s description of her is worth the price of the book.
(3) I was fortunate to speak on a number of occasions with Roy Eldridge in the late 1970s when he was leading a small band that was playing at a club on West 54th Street in Manhattan called Jimmy Ryan’s.
(4) Although Ava Gardner was only 21 years old when Artie Shaw met her, she was not a babe in the woods. She had been under contract with MGM since 1941, had appeared in several movies, had been married to and divorced from MGM’s biggest box office draw, Mickey Rooney, and had started what would be an on-again-off-again relationship with one of the most peculiar denizens of Hollywood, Howard Hughes. On one occasion when Hughes entered Ava’s home without her permission and slapped her, she conked him on the head with a heavy ornamental bronze bell. Hughes had to be removed by an ambulance. Nevertheless, his obsession with Ava Gardner continued for years. “He stuck to me like molasses,” is how Ava described that weird situation.
(5) Much of the information about the Artie Shaw-Ava Gardner relationship used in this post was taken from the book Ava Gardner …Love is Nothing, by Lee Server (2006), 101-120.
(6) After the success of the film The Killers, Ernest Hemingway became enchanted by Ava Gardner. Later they became friends. This development irritated Artie Shaw. Once when Ava was visiting Hemingway at his home, Finca la Vigia, in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, she swam in his pool au naturel. After observing this, Hemingway gave the order to his staff that the water was never to be drained from the pool.
Links: Here are a couple of links to the stories and music of a later Gramercy Five:
And here is a closer look at the great trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who was such a key member of Artie Shaw’s 1945 Gramercy Five, including a sizzling live performance of “Scuttlebutt.”