Composed and arranged by Artie Shaw.
Recorded in performance by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra on December 1, 1938 from an NBC broadcast emanating from the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in New York.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: John Best, first trumpet; Chuck Peterson and Bernie Privin, trumpets; George Arus, first trombone; Harry Rodgers and Les Jenkins, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Hank Freeman, alto and baritone saxophones; Tony Pastor and Ronnie Perry, tenor saxophones; Les Burness, piano; Al Avola, guitar; Sid Weiss, bass; Cliff Leeman, drums.
In examining the music and stories of the great bands of the swing era, I have noticed that there was a special excitement in the air when a band that had been struggling, perhaps only days or weeks before, for whatever reason caught fire, and jumped from being a good band, to a very good one, to a great one. That process, though seemingly quick, rarely was. Many factors had to be working in favor of the band improving, and finding inspiration. Paramount among these were musical considerations like the quality of the band’s musicians, singers, arrangements and leader. Good employment opportunities also helped to inspire a band to perform well. For Artie Shaw, that break-out process took place from early 1938 through the balance of that year. By the time this performance took place on December 1, 1938, Shaw’s band was very good indeed. Artie’s own clarinet playing had advanced through that year as well. By the end of 1938, Shaw as a clarinetist was playing second to no one.
From March of 1937 through nine months of 1938, a period of eighteen months, the Shaw band was basically on tour constantly. By September of 1938, exhaustion and illness were beginning to sideline members of the band. In mid-September, Shaw himself collapsed while in a battle of the bands with Tommy Dorsey’s crew on September 16, 1938 at the Bronx 166th Street Armory. Shortly after that, lead alto saxophonist Les Robinson was stricken with pneumonia, was hospitalized, and was away from the band for two weeks. Vocalist Billie Holiday, like everyone else in the band, was tired of the constant traveling, and told Shaw she wanted to quit. He persuaded her to stay on for a while longer, but by late September had hired Billie’s replacement, Helen Forrest. Billie remained with the band into December, but her presentation was limited to a few special features in each set. Ms. Forrest began to sing the current pop tunes with the band on gigs and on records. (Regrettably, Billie Holiday was precluded from making records with the Shaw band for Victor/Bluebird – with one lovely exception – (*) because she was under contract with a competing record label.)
Artie Shaw and His Orchestra opened an engagement at the Chase Club inside of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis on September 30, 1938. They came into the Chase Club hot: they broke the room’s record for attendance on opening night, with 1,091 young swing fans there to greet them. The next night, they broke that record with an attendance of 1,432.(1) While they were at the Chase Hotel, they broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System, creating more excitement and more demand for the band’s services.
On a night when they were off at the Chase Hotel (Monday October 17), they traveled to Chicago where they appeared at the Savoy Ballroom there, located at 47th and South Parkway. The occasion was the “Mayor of Bronzeville Ball,” and the audience was mostly African-American. The Ball was sponsored by the Chicago Defender, that city’s Afro-American newspaper, and was a benefit for the newspaper’s annual “Negro Christmas Basket Fund.” The event was billed as: Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra. Joe Shribman, who was an operative for Rockwell-O’Keefe – GAC, Shaw’s booking agency, was there that night. He later recalled: “…when they opened up, Artie really laid it on because he’d found out they really didn’t know who he was. The band was tight; it was a great band. The reception was wild. When Billie came out, she tore the joint down.” (2) A short time later, a very positive review of the event appeared in Billboard (October 29, 1938, page 14.) The buzz around Artie Shaw, his band and Billie Holiday, escalated. (Above left: a print ad promoting Artie Shaw’s opening at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Shaw’s pianist, Les Burness, got special billing because the room had a new piano.)
At this very same time, it was becoming apparent to the executives at Victor Records that Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine” was becoming a hit. Soon, Shaw was receiving requests to play “Begin the Beguine” at his appearances with his band.
Behind the scenes, Shaw’s management team was searching for a venue in Manhattan where the Shaw band could sit down for a while, yet be broadcast on radio regularly and nationwide. That scenario materialized in October. Shaw and his band would open for a lengthy stay at Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan on October 28. Soon thereafter, they were broadcasting several times a week over the full NBC radio network. Very soon after that, the Shaw band landed a golden plumb, a sponsored network radio show, Melody and Madness, starring comedian Robert Benchley and broadcast over CBS. By the end of November, the Shaw band had made a short film produced by Vitaphone (Warner Brothers), at Warners’ Brooklyn, New York studio on November 28/29,1938.(2A) (At right: Hotel Lincoln, 700 Eighth Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets in Manhattan.)
Unfortunately, for myriad reasons, it was in early December that Billie Holiday finally left the Shaw band. Based on my research over many years, it is my opinion that the major reason why Billie departed is that as a part of the fast-rising Shaw band through 1938, she herself had gone from being an underground favorite of jazz musicians and cultivated swing fans, to being a singing star in her own right. Basically, by December of 1938 her position with Shaw’s band had become untenable, and opportunities for her to begin her career as a solo artist began to come her way. By the end of December, she was headlining the show at the newly opened night club Cafe’ Society in Greenwich Village.(3)
Artie Shaw and his band in the Vitaphone film they made on November 28-29, 1938. Front, L-R: Al Avola, Ronnie Perry, Hank Freeman, Les Robinson, Tony Pastor; middle: Sid Weiss, Chuck Peterson, Bernie Privin, John Best, Harry Rodgers, George Arus, Les Burness, Russell Brown; the drummer in back is Cliff Leeman. Shaw is in front.
Artie Shaw had recorded “Non-Stop Flight” for RCA-Bluebird on September 27, 1938. That session was Shaw’s second for Bluebird. The first was the one on July 24, 1938, which had produced “Begin the Beguine,” “Indian Love Call” “Back Bay Shuffle,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” “Comin’ On,” and Billie Holiday’s great interpretation of “Any Old Time.” Among the other recordings Shaw made at that second Bluebird session were: “Nightmare,” his theme song; “What Is This Thing Called Love”; “Yesterdays”; and a couple of pop tunes. Artie and his band were obviously playing very well. All of those recordings are good, and several are great. Artie Shaw’s Bluebird recording of “Non-Stop Flight” is very good, but it is not great. The live version presented here is great.
“Non-Stop Flight” was one of several original compositions written by Artie that was in the Shaw band’s book almost from the beginning of its existence. Artie first recorded it on December 15, 1937. After that, no less than eleven more recordings of it were made in various settings. Shaw liked the tune because it allowed him room to improvise on its chord changes for a full chorus. The arrangement, by Artie himself, is good, but it reveals his limits as an arranger as much as it reveals his talents. Much of the success Shaw had with this chart can be attributed to the superb performances of it his band rendered, no matter what the circumstances, the high quality of tenor saxophonist Tony Pastor’s jazz choruses (which were bestowed upon young Georgie Auld soon after he joined the Shaw band in mid-December of 1938), and Shaw’s own inspired jazz choruses. I’m also reasonably sure that Shaw was very happy to perform his own composition as much as possible so he could increase his composer and performer royalties for it.
After a brief and bright introduction, the Shaw saxophone quartet led by Les Robinson, one of the best on the scene then, alternates carrying the melody with the brass, led with swing and authority by trumpeter John Best, through the first sixteen bars. (Below left: Shaw’s saxophones through most of 1938. L-R: Tony Pastor, Les Robinson, Ronnie Perry and Hank Freeman.)
A brief interlude, with alto saxophonist Hank Freeman switching to his baritone, smooths the way for Tony Pastor to play a tasty bit of jazz. Here his solo is quite good: he was an excellent musician who also fit into the saxophone section perfectly. But Shaw, now with a sponsored network radio show, and deals for week-long gigs in major theaters ahead, wanted to feature Tony’s audience-pleasing signing more, and expand the role for jazz tenor saxophone. The perfect candidate for that was the young tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, who had made a name for himself as an exciting jazz soloist over the previous two years with Bunny Berigan’s band. Very shortly after this performance, Auld sat-in with Shaw’s band at Hotel Lincoln. Artie was impressed, and Auld was hired. His first day with the Shaw band was December 16. Shaw released journeyman tenor saxophonist Ronnie Perry to make room for Auld.
Apropos of swing era arrangements that were principally settings for improvised solos, Shaw provided a relatively sparse but bright background for Pastor to play against. Artie’s arrival as a soloist is sudden, as he plays through a break immediately after Pastor’s solo ends. He plays against a bubbling background of low register saxophones. And what a solo he plays! Everything a jazz solo is supposed to have, this solo has: great ideas expressed with breathtaking technique covering much of the clarinet’s range, all delivered with a robust clarinet sound that we all recognize as “the Artie Shaw sound.” And then there is Shaw’s irresistible swing. I have read with dismay the comments of a number of critics who speak of Shaw’s ability to swing with reservation. Those critics obviously had not listened to his playing in this performance. This solo not only swings, it was cutting-edge swing in 1938, and would make people jump out of their chairs if it were played today in front of an audience.
The final chorus presents the Shaw band playing a chart they were very familiar with, impeccably. My only minor criticism of this sequence is that there are, in places, small riffs in both the brass and the saxophones that Shaw then favored as an arranger, that to my ears sound a bit dated within the context of this otherwise very up-to-date (for 1938) arrangement. Shaw was obviously a capable arranger. But he was not as talented in that area as Jerry Gray, whose charts for the Shaw band were never rhythmically stilted in any way. But despite this minor flaw,(4) the Shaw ensemble plays the music with such swinging authority that it is barely noticed. All in all, this is a superb performance.
Artie Shaw plays for a packed house at the Blue Room of Hotel Lincoln in Manhattan late 1938 – early 1939. Notice the smiling faces in the audience.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) Here is a link to the sole recording that survived from the charmed musical association between Artie Shaw and Billie Holiday: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/09/19/any-old-time-1938-artie-shaw-and-billie-holiday/\
(1) Down Beat, November 1938, 2.
(2) Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake …The Life of Artie Shaw, by Tom Nolan (2010), 100.
(2A) The first Vitagraph film studio structure was built in Brooklyn in 1906. Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers on April 22, 1925. What we now know as NBC Brooklyn Studio 1 was built by Warners in 1936, and was first used by NBC September 12, 1954. The Warners studio (Studio I) where Artie Shaw made the short music film on November 28-29, 1938 was located on the irregular block bounded by Locust Avenue and Avenue M, East 13th and East 14th. Studio II, the smaller studio was built nearby from the ground up by NBC, and went into service in the fall of 1956. For more information about this studio complex, follow this link: https://eyesofageneration.com/a-rare-and-detailed-look-at-nbcs-brooklyn-studios-part-1-of-2-for-me-these/
(3) For the story of Billie Holiday at Cafe’ Society, and how she came to sing “Strange Fruit,” follow this link: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/29/strange-fruit-1939-billie-holiday/
(1) The same minor flaw exists in Shaw’s arrangement on “It Had to Be You,” which is basically a vehicle for his inspired clarinet playing. The solo Artie played on his Bluebird recording of that tune on December 16, 1938 is one of the best he ever played.
Here are links to some other great performances by Artie Shaw’s 1938 band: