“Where or When” (1950) Artie Shaw

“Where or When”

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyric by Lorenz Hart. Arranged by Artie Shaw and Richard Breach.

Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra on September 14, 1950 for Decca in New York.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Tony Faso, first trumpet; Chris Griffin, Bert Wallace, trumpets; Will Bradley, first trombone; Jack Satterfield, trombone; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Milt Yaner, alto saxophone; Art Drelinger and Stan Webb, tenor saxophones; Billy Taylor, piano; John Collins, guitar; Joe Benjamin, bass; Charlie Smith, drums.

The story:

By the time Artie Shaw made this recording at the end of the summer of 1950, his career as the leader of a standing big band that worked regularly, toured, and made records was over. The last such big band he ever led was in existence for the fall of 1949 and a few days into 1950. It had excellent musicians and arrangements, played well, and failed to find an audience. Shaw himself was playing beautifully.

This state of affairs would have been vexing to many of the leaders who had tasted success during the swing era. Shaw however dealt with these issues pragmatically. Rather than lose vast sums of money trying to keep a big band in business on the road, Artie instead limited his in-person appearances with a big band to a couple of small tours with bands that were formed specifically for those tours, and then disbanded.

He also secured a three-year recording contract with Decca Records at the end of 1949. Shaw had had no recording contract since his one-year agreement with the short-lived Musicraft label expired in late 1946.

Artie lived, for the most part, at the 240 acre farm he purchased in 1949 in Shekomeko, New York, near Pine Plains in Dutchess County. He called this place Picardy Farm, and planned to spend as much time there as possible writing what eventually turned out to be The Trouble with Cinderella, which would be published on his 42nd birthday, May 23, 1952.

In retrospect, 1950 was a transitional year in Shaw’s career and life. By July of 1950, he had reached the point where he was truly sick of performing with any big band on tour. He had been slightly injured in an automobile accident on June 15th near Huntington, West Virginia while on tour with a big band. Shortly after that, he cancelled the rest of the tour and retreated to his farm to rest and reassess how best to move his career in a positive direction.(1) Nevertheless, he happily received the money Dave Kapp of Decca Records paid him, and for much of 1950 was very involved in making records. He made no less than 28 sides for Decca in 1950. But by the end of 1950, Shaw was spending most of his time at Picardy Farm.

Before that, he sketched the arrangements he would need for the recording sessions he would have at Decca, practiced his clarinet, and went into Manhattan essentially to play at and direct those recording sessions.His activities as a public performer during the first half of 1950 were limited to some gigs (including a tour) with a big band put together for him by trumpeter Lee Castle, and making records for Decca.(2)

Despite Shaw’s disenchantment with the vicissitudes of operating and touring with a big band that basically played dance music, he was still very interested in other musical activities through much of 1950 including, occasionally recording with a big band. In the early part of that year, he had been fairly busy making recordings for Decca: no fewer than 20 sides had been made as of May 31. These sides were extremely varied, and reveal Shaw’s change of approach to making records. The first fourteen sides Shaw made for Decca, up to the April 7, 1950 date, were made by standing Shaw bands, Thereafter, he led bands of studio musicians to make his Decca records.

Quite apart from the size and instrumentation of the bands Shaw would appear with on Decca, he decided that for public appearances, he wanted to limit himself to working with a small jazz group. To do that, he had to to create a new repertoire for any such group. In the summer of 1950, he took a pied-a-terre on the upper east side of Manhattan, and began began casting about.

He came into contact with a young jazz pianist called William F. Lee, who was from Texas, but ended up in Manhattan after coming off a long tour of one-night stands with Gene Krupa’s band. Shaw and Lee gathered four other musicians, and started rehearsing at Nola Studios on Broadway. According to Lee, Shaw was then seriously trying to put together a group that played bebop. Despite Shaw’s flirtation with bop with this small group, Artie wisely decided not to completely immerse himself in that jazz idiom. He simply took from it what he thought he needed to expand his capabilities as a jazz soloist, and continued to be Artie Shaw, on a slightly more evolved musical level. This sextet, which was billed as “The Artie Shaw All Stars,” played a few random jobs in the greater New York area, but never had a steady gig. Soon, Shaw disbanded the group and moved on.

Lee, a highly intelligent and insightful person, later reflected on his time working with Shaw in the summer of 1950, and on Shaw himself: “He was one of the most unusual guys because he was so talented and articulate. His IQ must have been 160, 170. I think music was a kind of drug to him; it’s a feeling I always had about him. …It’s one of those strange contradictions: he seemed much happier when he was playing–but he hated to play.” (3)  My take on this is that Shaw actually loved to play, and to work with musicians, especially in rehearsal and making recordings. What he hated was the music business, and the often vexing behavior of his audiences. (See below.)

The pool of free-lance musicians in New York that Shaw could draw from to make the recordings he owed Decca was large, and it included many former swing era sidemen, and indeed even bandleaders. It appears that Shaw worked with alto saxophonist Hymie Shertzer, who led many of Benny Goodman’s best saxophone sections in the 1930s and 1940s, and who by 1950 was also a music contractor. Shertzer gathered the musicians Shaw needed to make recordings at Decca in the period 1950 to 1953. Shaw would then appear at some time before (or indeed at) the recording sessions to rehearse the musicians. Due to the high caliber of musicians used, very little rehearsal was required.

On occasion, Shaw selected some of the musicians he wanted. For the session that produced the recording of “Where or When” presented with this post, Shaw used pianist Billy Taylor (shown at left in 1950), whose playing he was familiar with and liked. He also utilized the other three musicians in Taylor’s then-current combo as the rest of the rhythm section.

Actually, Shaw was rehearsing Taylor’s quartet as four-fifths of a new edition of his Gramercy Five (with Artie as the fifth member), for a specific engagement at a not so glamorous Manhattan venue called Iceland. (See below.) The “Where or When” recording session occurred while Shaw and the Taylor quartet were rehearsing for the Iceland gig. “I was just delighted to get (his) call.”  Taylor later said. Rehearsals were held in Shaw’s apartment. At the first rehearsal, Shaw said to Taylor, “What about this bebop thing? So I showed him a couple of the things I had done, and …I know that this is not his style, and he cuts it at sight! …Then we went back to this stuff that we were gonna play with him, you know.” (4) (Whatever reason Shaw had to question Taylor about bebop in the late summer of 1950, it certainly was not to discover what bop was all about. He had played bop-oriented music with his big band in the fall of 1949 and into 1950, and had just worked with the small group including William Lee, which played some bop, so he definitely understood what bop was.)

It seems more likely that in addition to having a ready-made combo for the Iceland gig, Shaw’s intent in using Taylor’s quartet was to begin to develop music for a small group of his own. Some of the music Artie played with the Taylor quartet was later a part of the repertoire of what turned out to be Shaw’s last Gramercy Five, which he led from the fall of 1953 into the late spring of 1954. Regardless of his intent in working with the Billy Taylor Quartet in the summer of 1950, they fit into the big studio band assembled by Hymie Shertzer for the “Where or When” recording session perfectly.

The performance level of the musicians who participated in that session was very high. Also, Shaw, who in addition to being a splendid clarinet virtuoso, was a superb bandleader. He was a superior communicator who knew how to efficiently and intelligently rehearse musicians, and quickly mold them into a unified, expressive band. It was well-known in the music business that Shaw enjoyed rehearsing bands and working with them in the recording studio as much or more than he ever enjoyed appearing and performing publicly. Musicians who worked for him inside or outside of recording studios invariably respected his musicianship, and gave him the full measure of their effort.

The music:

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote “Where or When” for the Broadway show “Babes in Arms” in 1937. Like many songs by that most talented team, it is composed of a melody and lyric that are perfectly matched. In this superb performance, the “singing” is done by Artie Shaw’s clarinet, one of the most lyrical and affecting voices to emerge during the swing era.

What has always struck me about “Where or When” is the ever ascending melody at the end of the song’s chorus. The composer Alec Wilder was critical of the song in his monumental study American Popular Song …The Great Innovators – 1915-1950: “Because of its unprecedented octave and a fourth climb, step-wise, which contains the closing statement of the song, it must be considered a dramatic song. Until this occurs, however, there is no indication that it will take this kind of turn. Except for this device, it is a memorable song using a very interesting pedal point for nine of the ten measures of its opening phrase, and for nine measures of the immediate ten measure repeat. But I find that I balk at the plethora of repeated notes. In this song, they become monotonous, being broken only by the release. And frankly, the long, long climb to the high ending comes off as a contrivance.” (5) 

The song as written merits this criticism, though “Where or When” is undoubtedly one of the greenest of the Rodgers and Hart’s evergreen songs. But any singer who attempts to sing it had better have plenty of range. This great performance minimized the song’s shortcomings, and maximized its melodic and harmonic assets. For this, we must be grateful to Artie Shaw, music editor par excellence. It is my informed speculation that Shaw liked this song because of the romantically conspiratorial mood it invariably evokes, and organized how he wanted the arrangement of it to develop quite carefully so as to create that mood without Lorenz Hart’s lyric being employed. Artie would sing Richard Rodgers’s melody on his clarinet. As this recording demonstrates, he was completely successful in casting a romantic musically rich spell without sentimentality.

The sketch arrangement Shaw devised, and then had filled out by Richard Breach (6), suggests the approach he had so much success with in 1938-1939 (including the use of only four saxophones and five brass – Artie added a third trombone in early 1938), yet it is no way dated or old-fashioned. After a simple four bar introduction, Shaw sets forth the melody for eight bars in quintessential fashion, simply and beautifully, paraphrasing where he thought it would enhance the musical quality of this performance. The tempo is perfect for dancing, or for pensive listening. The background for this sequence is minimal, and the meter is 2/4. The second eight bars has the four saxophones, led with singing brilliance by Hymie Shertzer, playing melodically. Artie returns to play the eight-bar bridge in a caressing fashion, with a few rhythmic asides from the brass and reeds which flow into a thicker harmonic background of reeds. Then the big melodic ascent begins, starting with the two trombones blended with the low-register saxophones, ending with the open trumpets on top of the massed ensemble. (Above left: Hymie Shertzer in the recording studio – early 1950s.)

In the second chorus, the meter shifts to 4/4, providing gentle swing. Then another highlight: Shaw’s marvelous 16-bar Zen-like improvised clarinet solo. In addition to his lovely clarinet tone, he plays with minimal vibrato. And hear how he lingers deliciously behind the beat. His expressiveness here is at a very high level: Artie was strongly and creatively involved with this music. This solo is unquestionably one of his greatest creations, yet few people in 1950 when this recording was made, or ever since, have recognized its brilliance. Sadly, the pop music scene in the 1950s was devolving to places of less and less creativity and more and more banality, and the music coming from the jazz scene was often so complex and abstract that it left many people bewildered. Gems like this, alas, were lost in the void between those two poles. (Above right: Artie Shaw at Decca in the early 1950s: He was playing brilliantly, but fewer people were listening.)

Pianist Billy Taylor plays the solo on the bridge in the locked-hands style that was in vogue at the time. It fits the music going on around him perfectly.

After another melodic and dynamic ascent by the ensemble, the dynamic level drops and Shaw quietly provides the finale.

So that you will not miss the lovely, poetic quality of Lorenz Hart’s lyric for “Where and When,” I have included it here:

It seems we stood and talked like this before                     
We looked at each other in the same way then
But I can’t remember where or when.

The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then
But I can’t remember where or when.

Some things that happened for the first time seem to be happening again.

And so it seems that we have met before
And laughed before, and loved before
But who knows where or when.

The story continues: 

In the aftermath of Artie Shaw’s final disappearance from the world of music as a performer, which occurred as 1955 was ending, there was a good bit of consternation among his fans. When after several years they realized that Shaw was gone permanently, many of them asked: How could he do this? Few of them were aware of the various difficulties he faced in the first half of the decade of the 1950s. Elsewhere on this blog, I have told the story of Shaw’s deeply disturbing appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. (Below is a link to that post.) There were other occurrences, many of which Shaw recounted in interviews he gave later in his life, including the sale of his farm at auction to settle an IRS claim for $80,000.00.(7)

One he never spoke about, to my knowledge, was an incident at Iceland, “a Scandanavian restaurant-club on Broadway across the street but a world away from the then-new jazz mecca of Birdland. The club was an enormous basement room housing a huge smorgasbord table.” Jazz critic Leonard Feather  “…cornered Artie (there) and found an embarrassed Shaw in a dour mood. ‘I just came down here to pick up a few fast bucks,’ Shaw told him. ‘It’s strictly for the loot. You can’t make it with music any more. The band business, as we knew it, is dead! People don’t follow bands and know all of the soloists the way they did.” (8) 

Despite Shaw’s negative mood about the venue and the state of the music business at that moment, he was, as always, deeply involved in the music he made at Iceland. Billy Taylor, who played that gig with Shaw, later told the story of a particular incident that took place when Shaw was playing at the Iceland restaurant. “We’d been there for a few days. On a couple of the nights, things hadn’t been the way Artie wanted. But, one night, for some reason or other, everything was really hitting it. I mean I said, ‘this is why I took this gig. This is really terrific!’ It was going so well that Artie had chosen to play a ballad, one of the ballads he liked to play back in those days. The spotlight was on him, and — he was singin’ it (on his clarinet). I mean, it was beautiful! And right in the middle of it, a (drunk) guy comes up onstage out of nowhere, and puts his arm around Artie’s shoulders! And he said, “I love your playing!’  I thought Artie was going to deck him, man! He was so furious! He walked off and then the bouncers had to get the guy…” (9) 

It has been said that Artie Shaw had no sense of humor. That is not necessarily correct, as this Christmas card sent by him to a friend shows. I think that Artie had somewhat less a sense of humor about himself than he had regarding other matters. But he did have a sense of humor. The sentiments he expressed with this card are rather timeless, it would seem.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Artie Shaw …A Musical Biography and Discography by Vladimir Simosko, (2000), 124.Hereafter Simosko.

(2) Shekomeko, New York is located about 100 miles north of Manhattan in Dutchess County. It lies about 10 miles southwest of the three-way border between Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State, and is just east of the Taconic Parkway. Shaw commemorated his frequent drives between his farm near Shekomeko and New York City by composing and recording the excellent jazz tune, the boppish “The Shekomeko Shuffle” for Decca on April 7, 1950.

(3) Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake …The Life of Artie Shaw by Tom Nolan, (2010), 262. Hereafter Nolan.

(4) Nolan, 263-264. Billy Taylor, later Dr. Billy Taylor (he earned a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975), became starting in the 1960s one of the foremost educators in jazz. I saw him perform in Manhattan with the “Jazzmobile” on more than one occasion. Here is a link to a brief biography for him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Taylor

Here is a link to his obituary in the New York Times, dated December 29, 2010: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/30/arts/music/30taylor.html

(5) American Popular Song …The Great Innovators – 1915-1950 by Alec Wilder, (1972), 207.

(6) Richard Breach was a young arranger and copyist working in Manhattan in 1949. He had recently graduated form the New England Conservatory of Music and became a acolyte of Artie Shaw throughout 1949-1950. Shaw used Breach at first in the latter half of 1949 to revise older Shaw arrangements for the instrumentation and style of his 1949 band. In 1950, Shaw took to working in a more collaborative fashion with Breach, as he had with many other arrangers previously, by first sketching out in some detail how he wanted an arrangement to unfold, then handing the sketch to Breach to orchestrate.

(7) Nolan, 296.

(8) Simosko, 124-125. The Iceland Restaurant was located at 1680 Broadway, just south of 53rd on the east side.

(9) Nolan, 264-265.

Here are links to some of Artie Shaw’s music from 1949 and into the 1950s:

The first link is to the story of Shaw’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities committee.





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  1. Hi, Mike–
    This is another great post, and another great recording selection! I like to think I know SOMETHING about this era of American music, but I always learn something (usually, a lot) from your posts. I’m glad you’re doing this for the world. Please stay safe, and stay well!

  2. Thank you, Mike, for not only the musical selection but also the glimpses you afford us into Artie Shaw the man. You are certainly unrivalled at shining light on the personalities and business environment that shaped the great music of “swing and beyond.” Of the four great white bandleaders of the Swing Era–Goodman, Miller, Dorsey, and Shaw–I have always found Shaw to be the least endearing (and that’s saying something given the competition), but you have helped me to understand him better. And of course the music remains as his monument. Still not convinced of his sense of humor, though, but a nice try.

  3. From a purely musical point, this recording (and band) is so impressive in many different ways. Basically, a “bop” rhythm section plays the classic swing era “2 feel” so flawlessly and then Billy Taylor specifically plays a very modern (for that time) solo and fills. The sax section is led by an old stalwart of the Goodman band, Hymie Shertzer and the arranging by Richard Breach is in my opinion very underrated. A 4 sax and 5 brass ensemble sounds so full with his quite brilliant voicings and having one or both tenors play along with the brass in areas, giving the aural illusion of a larger brass section. Then there’s Artie……brilliant sound and ideas as always.

    Thanks Mike!


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