Artie Shaw: Biography & Music

Instructor: Sarah Porwoll-Lee
Learn about the life and work of American musician, composer, band leader, and author Artie Shaw, 'King of Clarinet.' Uncover the details of his impact on swing music and integration, and his colorful personal life and interesting personality.

Artie Shaw: The King of Clarinet

Music is an integral part of cultures around the world and everyday life, especially current popular music. Who doesn't listen to their favorite pop and rock tunes as they go through their day, drive in the car, and spend time with friends? One of the most popular music styles of the early to mid-1900's was swing, a type of jazz played as dance music in clubs, used in film, and in concert settings. Swing was the king of music, and Artie Shaw was the king of swing clarinet!

Artie Shaw was one of the stars of swing, which the clarinet dominated for many years. He had a strong rivalry with the even more well-known Benny Goodman, although Shaw was called the 'King' because of his experimental playing and enviable sound.

Artie Shaw, the King of Clarinet
Artie Shaw, The King of Clarinet

1910-1920's: Early Life & Career

Artie Shaw was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City on May 23, 1910, his parents Jewish immigrants from Austria and Russia. Shaw became serious about music after learning to play the saxophone, quitting school at 15 to pursue performance. The young saxophonist joined Johnny Cavallaro's dance band, picking up the clarinet while on tour. This new instrument became his focus for the rest of his music career.

After getting his feet wet with this first job, Shaw moved to Cleveland, arranging music for violinist Austin Wylie's orchestra. He continued touring with other bands, playing both saxophone and clarinet, and growing a reputation as a sensational player.

The 1930's: First Hits and Integration

This traditional career continued for a while, with Shaw's work as a studio musician from 1931-1935. Things changed in 1936 when he put together his first group as a bandleader. Traditional jazz and swing bands consisted of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and a rhythm section. Shaw's band was completely different - string quartet, three rhythm instruments, and clarinet. The use of string instruments in swing was practically unheard of, and the ensemble generated a lot of buzz at their first performance in New York. A singer, saxophone, and brass were later added to the band, which landed a recording contract and played regularly at the Lexington Hotel. Unfortunately, the novelty this group first provided quickly died off, and the ensemble was dissolved in March 1937.

Shaw's next ensemble was a traditional swing band, performing well-known swing and pop songs. As Shaw's career gained momentum influence, he used this new status to further the cause of racial integration, hiring African American singing sensation Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday

Shaw and Holiday collaborated on their 1938 hit recording of Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine before Holiday left the group following racial discrimination encountered during a southern tour. Shaw continued to support integration, giving no consideration to race - only artistry - when hiring musicians.

While Shaw's artistic reputation continued to spread, his personal life also became more colorful. He married typist Jane Cairns in 1932 (the first of eight wives), although their marriage was later annulled - and married again in 1934, to Margaret Allen (divorced after three years).

The 1940's: Film Success, Gossip, and Virtuosity

Tabloids weren't much different in the 1940's than today. After these two non-celebrity marriages, Shaw's personal life began to get a lot of attention in the gossip columns due to his stream of glamorous wives. His first famous wife was actress Lana Turner, who he married in 1940 after meeting her on the set of the film Dancing Coed. The union was brief, lasting just a few months.

Although busy earning two Academy Award nominations for the music of Second Chorus in 1940, Shaw wasted no time marrying wife number four, Elizabeth Kern (daughter of composer Jerome Kern) in 1941. The pair had a son, Steven, but the relationship didn't last. Shaw married another actress, Ava Gardner, in 1945. They divorced in less than a year, and Shaw quickly moved on, briefly married to novelist Kathleen Winsor. You can imagine the love gossip columnists had for this supplier of non-stop celebrity drama!

Paulette Goddard and Fred Astaire in Second Chorus
Second Chorus

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