Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 53 - Artie Shaw's Early Influences
Story filed May 3, 2000

All artists are influenced by other artists. Jazz artists particularly listen to other jazz players all the time, to hear what new ideas they have, and sometimes to consciously or, at least subconsciously, incorporate some of the new ideas into their own artistic efforts. This is particularly true of young, aspiring artists who have not yet developed their own styles and techniques.

Artie Shaw was just 16 years old when he came to Cleveland from New Haven, Connecticut to play with a band led by Joe Cantor. In 1927, when he was 17 and playing in Cleveland, Shaw began to listen to some jazz records. In an autobiographical essay he wrote in 1995, Shaw remembered his earliest idols -- and jazz influences -- were cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.

Bix and "Tram" were playing together at the time with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and recording on their own on the side. Beiderbecke was to jazz in 1927 what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Bix added lyrical and creative solos to what, for the most part, had been a hard-driving, raucous style of roaring '20s jazz.

Absorbing some of Beiderbecke's lyrical playing, Shaw added some elements of it to his own playing and soon won a job with Cleveland's leading dance orchestra of the period, the Austin Wylie Orchestra. When he began arranging for Wylie, Shaw also incorporated some of the things he had heard Trumbauer play on record.

Then, later in 1927, Shaw said he heard in Cleveland some so-called "race records," recordings made specifically for sale in Negro neighborhoods. Among the recording artists was Louis Armstrong and particularly the records Armstrong made with his Hot Five.

Shaw said he was "entranced" by Armstrong's recordings of "West End Blues," and "Savoy Blues." Armstrong's music on record excited the young Artie Shaw so much that on a day off from the Austin Wylie band, he hopped into his red roadster and drove from Cleveland to Chicago. He called it "a pilgrimage" to Chicago's Savoy Ballroom to hear the great trumpet player in person.

The early jazz idols of the young clarinetist playing in Cleveland -- Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong -- are today considered among the most important and influential artists in the history of jazz.

After playing in Cleveland for three years, Shaw drove his red roadster to California in 1929 to join the Irving Aaronson band. While playing with Aaronson, Shaw began listening to the works of the then-avant-garde symphonic composers Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok and Ravel. When he got to New York with the Aaronson band, Shaw decided to stay there and within two years, when he was still only 21 years old, became a top lead-alto and clarinet player in radio and recording studios. He got a chance to record with one of his early idols.

In 1936, Shaw recorded Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehaving" with the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra. He also played on one of the all-time classic jazz recordings. Shaw was an unknown and unnamed player in the band when trumpeter Bunny Berigan made his original recording of "I Can't Get Started."

Before long, Shaw formed his own band and recorded what he called "a nice little tune from one of Cole Porter's very few flop shows." "Begin the Beguine" became a huge national hit and one of the best selling records in history. It propelled Shaw to stardom in the then-rapidly growing big band popularity explosion. He later admitted he found superstardom "uncongenial" and abruptly left the music business for about a year. But he re-emerged in 1939. For the first time in jazz history, Shaw made a record with a large studio orchestra with woodwinds, French horns, and a full string section -- along with the normal dance band instrumentation. The record, "Frenesi," also became a big hit. He followed "Frenesi" with other hit recordings: "Star Dust," "Moonglow," "Dancing in the Dark," "Concerto for Clarinet" among many.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Shaw enlisted in the Navy and led a service band in the Pacific. When he returned from the war, he formed another civilian band and toured the country.

Shaw's post war band included such jazz performers as trumpeter Roy Eldridge, guitarist Barney Kessel and pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and Shaw's clarinet. Shaw also recorded with his small group called The Gramercy Five (named after a New York telephone exchange). The Gramercy Five (actually six) in 1945 included Eldridge, Kessel and Marmarosa as well as Shaw and bassist Morris Rayman and drummer Lou Fromm.

In 1947, Shaw, who had spent three years in Cleveland, playing and listening to records, turned to classical music and performed with several symphony orchestras, as Benny Goodman had done earlier. Shaw even formed his own symphony orchestra to play a one-week engagement at a New York jazz club called Bop City.

In 1954, at the age of 44, Artie Shaw packed his clarinet away and completely quit the music business. He moved to Spain, then Connecticut and California, and spent most of his time writing -- not music, but books including his autobiography, "The Trouble With Cinderella," and a novel entitled "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!" He lectured at colleges and appeared at times on interview programs. But, he never again picked up his clarinet.

In 1983, after almost 30 years away from music, Shaw did return briefly to a bandstand -- not to play -- but to introduce his ghost band.

Shaw was once asked what epitaph he would like on his tomb stone. With the crusty humor of an artist in his 80s, Shaw said, "Just two words -- 'Go away.'"

But, Shaw could also be charming. A few months ago, he wrote to me from his home in Newbury Park, California. He said he had gotten a copy of my "Cleveland Jazz History" book and found it "quite interesting as well as informative."

Many people forget that the long, colorful, extremely successful and enigmatic career of jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw began in Cleveland, when he was still a teenager, and listening to records by Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer and Louis Armstrong, and was propelled by a long drive from Cleveland to Chicago to hear Armstrong in person.

Copyright 2000 Joe Mosbrook


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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).