Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.
Artie Shaw died last week at the ripe old age of 94. He was one of the giants of the jazz era.
On the cover of “Pocket Full of Gold,” the Bing Crosby biography by Gary Giddins, there is a quote from Artie Shaw in which he calls Bing the “first hip white man in America.”
I always thought that was a really nice compliment and an interesting observation from someone who was once in tune with what was hip in America.
For the longest time that quote and the jazz tune “Begin the Beguine” summed up everything I knew about Shaw. “Begin the Beguine” is Shaw’s sole contribution to the Ken Burn’s Jazz series, but it is also one of my favorite pieces of music in the whole collection.
The tune seems so very familiar even when you are hearing it for the first time. Shaw builds anticipation with his clarinet while the orchestra keeps a beat that is just on the mellow side of being “swing.” The whole song seems to slowly build on that anticipation until the very end when Shaw’s clarinet rides one note right off the scale and fulfills everything you were waiting for.
But that one song fulfilled even more for Shaw as it grew in popularity and overshadowed everything else he did. He eventually came to resent the song for that reason and went so far as to give up playing clarinet during the latter part of his life in favor of writing.
I’m sure that Shaw was a fine writer, but he never achieved the kind of fame for his literary efforts as he had acheived in music. But then it is rare that anyone is able to catch more than one shooting star during a lifetime. I also think it is quite admirable that Shaw chose to live his life pursuing the things that interested him and did not allow fame and fortune to dictate his path and lock him into one area where he would have felt trapped.


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