The James A. Drake Interviews: Artie Shaw
James A. Drake, Interviewer
Westport, Connecticut (November 1974)
On a late-autumn afternoon in 1974, Gustave (Gus) Haenschen, a radio and recording pioneer for whom many of the leaders of the “Big Band Era” had played in the early years of their careers, drove from his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, where I joined him, to nearby Westport where Artie Shaw was renting a house. When Haenschen turned into the driveway, Shaw was standing at the edge of the sidewalk. As soon as Haenschen get out of his car, Shaw put his arms around Haenschen’s midsection and lifted him off the ground, repeating “Gus … Gus … Gus” until Haenschen said, “I love you too, Artie, but I’m 85 years old so put me down!”
Having seen Shaw on talk shows, where his prickly personality was always on display, and knowing his reputation for correcting interviewers mid-sentence and citing logical flaws in their questions, I was taken by his open display of affection toward Haenschen, whom he hadn’t seen for almost 25 years. Although he knew that the purpose of the visit was for me to record an interview with him, Shaw promptly put me to the test. Probably because of Haenschen’s presence and my own research, I managed to pass his test and he responded in detail to my questions and gave candid, often blunt assessments of his and other bandleaders’ assets and liabilities.
Let me begin by thanking you, Mr. Shaw, for taking time to grant us this interview.
I’m doing this because Gus [Haenschen] asked me to do it. Gus is one of the great men in the music business. You, on the other hand, I don’t know at all. Who the hell are you and what the fuck do you want from me?
Well, I want to ask you questions about your career, and specifically about–
You’re a little late, sonny. I got out of the Artie Shaw business in 1954. So you’re exactly twenty years late.
I realize that you’re not actively performing, but your career is very significant in American popular music and popular culture. But you certainly don’t need for me to tell you that.
As I just told you, I quit being Artie Shaw twenty years ago. I’m through talking about my “career,” as you called it.
Well, then, what would you like to talk about?
Target shooting. Which you don’t know shit about. Have you ever heard of skeet shooting?
Yes, I have.
Do you know what a five-round drill at 100 yards is?
Yes, it’s an event that’s usually timed, and each shooter must put five rounds as close to the center as possible using open sights. Those with the tightest group are the winners.
Do you see that rifle [pointing to a rack on a wall]? What is it?
I can’t tell what the caliber is, but the rifle itself looks like an Anschutz or maybe a Weatherby with a full Mannlicher-style stock.
You’re doing all right so far. And by the way, it’s a .22 Hornet. What’s the best shotgun for skeet shooting?
Well, I know that the shotguns most skeet shooters prefer are made in the U.K. They’re James Purdy double-barreled side-by-side 12-gauge shotguns, which are hand-crafted to fit each buyer.
Well, I’ll be goddamned—you proved me wrong. You want to see some Purdys? Follow me to my gun room.
[After an interval of approximately twenty minutes, the interview resumed.]
Okay, go ahead and ask me anything you want, with one exception: I don’t want to talk about my ex-wives. So let’s stick to music.
What role did Charles E. Rochester play in your career?
You’ve done some homework. Charlie Rochester was the president and general manager of the Lexington Hotel in New York. When I was playing there, we had a clash that made me despise him until I realized that he was telling me was right. I didn’t understand it at the time.
What did you and he clash about?
I had signed with an agent after I put my first band together, and the agent got me a gig at the Lexington. We played there for about a week, but the ballroom we played in was practically empty. I didn’t really pay much attention to it because I was focused on the band and our arrangements. Well, at the end of the first week of our engagement, my agent told me that Rochester was displeased with my band because we weren’t drawing enough customers. So I asked my agent to arrange for me to meet with [Rochester].
When I went to his office, he said to me, “Your band isn’t pulling its weight, and if this keeps up, I’m going to have to let you go.” I said, “What do you mean we’re not pulling our weight? This is one hell of a band, and we’re playing our hearts out night after night.” He interrupted me and said that the band wasn’t pulling in customers, to which I said that pulling in customers was not my job. My job was to lead a quality band, irrespective of how many customers are on the dance floor, or at the bar, or having dinner at the tables in the room.
He said to me, “You’ve got it all wrong, kid. I’m not running a concert hall here. This is a hotel dining room, and it’s been practically empty every night this week. Your job is to provide the kind of entertainment that will fill this room. If you want to take off your pants every night and shit on the stage, and if it draws enough customers to fill this room, I’ll pay you to shit on the stage every night. You’re in show business, kid, and you’d better understand the ‘business’ part if you want to have a career.”
That was tough to hear, but he did me a favor by explaining show business to me because he smashed the picture that I had in my mind. I had thought that musical perfection, which was what I was always striving for, would always draw an audience. But it doesn’t because audiences in hotels and movie theaters and what-not aren’t educated about music. They want a show—and that’s why it’s called show business. I was mad as hell at him until I realized that he had just done me a favor. I was in a business. And that’s what I hated—the “business” of show business. That’s why I quit so many times until I finally quit for good.
Your fame as a bandleader is as a clarinetist, but did you study the clarinet formally? Was it your first instrument?
No, I was a sax player, alto and tenor. I’m an auto-didact, and I learned the sax on my own. I came to the clarinet after I had been playing sax in studio orchestras. I was in a lot of this man’s [Haenschen’s] sax sessions, especially during those World Broadcasting recording sessions. That’s why I keep saying to you, Gus, that you kept food on our tables.
There wasn’t enough work after the stock market crash, but those World Broadcasting sessions that you and Ben Selvin and Frank Black and Lenny Joy and the other directors you had working with you were our salvation. We could do three of those if we were free and had the stamina, and those smorgasbords you had for us were just the best—and you let us take food home. Believe me, the guys I’m still in touch with talk about those sessions the way I do.
Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw (circled at left) in the saxophone section at a World Broadcasting session conducted by Leonard Joy. James Melton is circled at the right.
Since we’re in the presence of Mr. Haenschen, what do you recall about playing under his direction?
Well, first of all, Gus is probably the only guy in the music business who has no enemies. No one in the business is more beloved by the guys who played under him than Gus Haenschen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting here.
What do you recall of the sessions with other directors, in particular Ben Selvin and Frank Black?
I don’t think Ben did as many as most of the others—certainly not as many as you did, Gus, and that Frank Black did. I didn’t like Frank Black—he was prissy, no sense of humor, and always gave me the impression that he wanted to be at Carnegie Hall conducting Beethoven instead of directing arrangements for radio. I don’t know how the others felt about him, but I didn’t think much of him.
The difference with Gus was, and any of the guys who played under both of them will tell you this, was that he treated every one of us with respect. He ran a tight organization but never an oppressive organization, yet he never hesitated to call out any player who made mistakes or wasn’t giving a hundred percent.
I don’t know if he’ll remember this, but he nailed [Benny] Goodman when he and I were in the sax section of one of [Haenschen’s] radio bands. Goodman was a good clarinetist—a damned good clarinetist, to give him his due—but he was a horrible saxophonist. Any high-school beginner would have a better tone than Goodman had on a sax.
There was a fairly complicated passage in one arrangement that we were rehearsing, and I played it well. It was tricky, but not really hard. Gus wanted it played one more time, so Goodman leaned over to me and said, “Let me play it this time.” It didn’t matter to me, so I let him play it.
Well, about five or six notes into it, Gus waved at the orchestra from the podium to stop our playing. “Who just played that sax phrase?” he said. You remember this, Gus? [Haenschen nods yes.] Well, Goodman jumped up and said he had played it. Gus said to him, “Sit down, Benny, and give that passage back to Artie!” To this day, I’m sure that sticks in Goodman’s craw.
Were you and Benny Goodman actually rivals?
In Goodman’s mind, such as it is, apparently so. Years later I met his daughter, who told me that her father referred to me as “the competition.” “The competition”? All I was trying to do was to make music as perfectly as I could. It wasn’t about competition, ever. But addled little Benny told his daughter that I was “the competition.” Go figure.
One legendary story that I’ve heard is that Mr. Goodman felt that he had bested you when Toscanini chose him to be the soloist for the NBC Symphony broadcast of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” but that you jinxed him. Is any of that true?
Yeah. I ran into him on Seventh Avenue one afternoon, and he made a point of trotting over to me to tell me that Toscanini had picked him for the “Rhapsody” broadcast. I don’t know what he expected me to say, but what I did say was, “Really? Well, you’ll be so nervous that you’ll fuck up the opening solo, and millions of people will hear you squeak when you fuck it up.”
Which is exactly what he did—and that cracked note, that out-of-tune squeak, is there for posterity. On any other day, he could play that solo part easily. But I got inside his head, and he fucked it up on the air. He’ll never live that down.
Another legend about Benny Goodman is the “death ray,” the stare that he gives any band member who makes any mistake, even in a first rehearsal. Was he that way when you were playing together in those early days?
That “death ray” is total horse shit! As a man, Goodman is a mouse, and mentally he’s what psychologists call an “idiot savant.” Now, when you copy this tape, or you transcribe it or whatever you’re going to do with it, I don’t want to come off saying that Goodman is an idiot. So let me say it again: idiot savant.
If it weren’t for the fact that he married John Hammond’s sister, I doubt that he would have had anything like the career he’s had. Hammond is a Vanderbilt descendant, so he comes from money, and he knows a hell of a lot about the music business because he’s been in it since the late-1920s. He’s the one who shaped Goodman’s career.
Benny Goodman with Artie Shaw (left) and producer John Hammond (right). “If it weren’t for the fact that [Goodman] married John Hammond’s sister, I doubt that he would have had anything like the career he’s had.”
All Goodman knows and cares about is a goddamned clarinet. He has no interest, no knowledge, and no curiosity about anything other than a clarinet. Which is about as shallow as a human being can get. Several years ago, and this was when I was still playing, I was asked to help put together a benefit to sell war bonds. So I called Goodman and asked him to meet me for lunch at the ‘21.’ Well, I spent about ten or fifteen minutes explaining this benefit, when all of a sudden he says to me, “What mouthpiece do you use?”
I just looked at him and said, “What the hell does that have to do with what I was talking to you about?” He said, “Well, the clarinet is our instrument, isn’t it?” I said yes, of course it’s our “instrument,” but it’s just an instrument—just a tool, just one among many different instruments that make up an orchestra. But, you see, that’s the only thing he could talk about: a clarinet, a goddamned tube of wood with holes and keys.
We’d like to talk about your childhood a bit. Where did you grow up, and what occupations did your father and mother have?
I was born on the Lower East Side in New York. My birth certificate says May 23, 1910, and I assume it’s accurate. My mother, whose name was Sarah, worked in the garment industry as a young girl. My father, whose Anglicized name was Harold, was a garment worker too. He was a dressmaker. And he had a photography business on the side. His darkroom was in a closet in the flat we were living in.
He had to have a steady supply of water to rinse off the chemicals from his negatives and prints, so one of my jobs was to keep refilling a big wash pan that he used for that purpose. He and my mother moved around a lot until he was able to get steady work in New Haven. So that’s really where I grew up.
How did your parents influence your involvement in music?
They didn’t. In fact, my father was contemptuous of music. Whenever he heard me practice the clarinet, he would refer to it as a blosser, which is a Yiddish word for a noise-maker that you blow through, like the ones you see people blowing into on New Year’s Eve. No, my father had nothing but contempt for music and musicians. Well, except maybe for the violin and the famous violinists of those days—Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, and so on—because the violin is a “Jewish” instrument and almost all of those great violinists were Jews.
Were you raised in the Jewish faith?
I had a bar mitzvah, but that’s about it. We didn’t go to the synagogue very often, and anyway I wasn’t interested in “Jewish” anything. I didn’t go out of my way to hide it, but I don’t look Jewish—not like Goodman, who definitely looks Jewish—and the name “Shaw,” although it’s not my real name, is British. I’d bet that if you took a survey of people who claim to be fans of mine, and you asked them whether I was a Jew or a Gentile, they’d say I was a Gentile, a goy.
Just for the record, what is your birth name?
Arthur Arshawsky. Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. That’s the spelling our family used, although I’ve seen other variations like “Arshavski.”
Artie Shaw (née Arshawsky) in the early 1930s
When did you begin studying music?
I was a bookworm as a kid, and wasn’t interested in stickball and the other stuff that boys my age were interested in. But my mother insisted that I learn an instrument, so I picked the saxophone because it was the popular instrument at that time. I had a couple lessons, but I mostly taught myself the sax. In those days, the C-melody sax was very popular because of Rudy Wiedoeft. He was the most famous saxophonist of his time. He’s the guy Rudy Vallée named himself after, if you don’t know that.
[Wiedoeft] wrote and played a lot of what I’d call “novelty tunes” like “Saxophobia” that seemed impossible to play and that every sax student wanted to be able to play. But he was also a virtuoso and wrote classical compositions for the sax. Like everybody else did when I started out, I learned the C-melody [sax] and then went on to the tenor and alto saxes.
Did you teach yourself the clarinet as well?
I did because in those days the real demand in studio work was for “doublers,” guys who could play clarinet and sax. I learned the [clarinet] fingering system from a book, and for me it wasn’t that hard even though the fingering is different than the sax, which has the same fingering in the upper and lower registers.
The upper register of the clarinet has totally different fingering, and [the clarinet] has several open holes. Sax keys all have pads. Another big difference is what reed players call the “embouchure,” or the way that your lips and your tongue interact when you’re playing the instrument properly. The clarinet requires a different embouchure.
There are two clarinet “systems,” the Boehm and the Albert. Which system were you taught?
There are four systems, depending on how you want to count them. There’s not only Boehm and Albert, but also the Öhler and the relatively new one, the Mazzeo system. Like most kids of my generation, my first clarinet was an Albert, but I switched to the Boehm [system] pretty early.
Every clarinetist who has heard your recordings wonders how you were able to play ultra-high notes so easily. One rumor has it that you used a synthetic reed and a specially designed mouthpiece to be able to play above the high-C in the upper register. Is any of that true?
Oh, hell no! For some reason, the upper register just came easily to me. Which is just the opposite for most clarinetists. Take this guy who did “Stranger on the Shore” a few years ago. I can’t remember his name right now, but do you know who I mean?
I believe it’s Acker Bilk you’re thinking of.
He plays mainly in the lower register. His tone is raw and there’s too much vibrato in it, but there’s something appealing about his low-register playing. He sold a hell of a lot of records of “Stranger on the Shore.” When he goes into the upper register, his tone changes and I can tell he’s not comfortable in that register. With me, it was just the opposite. I could play beautifully in the lower register, if I may say so myself—and anybody can listen to [my] records and judge it for themselves.
As much as I detest hearing [my] “Begin the Beguine” recording—and I detest it because I was asked to play “Begin the Beguine” so goddamned many times, everywhere I played—you can hear my lower register because I recorded it in [the key of] C, and the first bars are from low G to a middle E. I’ll also put my recording of “Star Dust” against anybody else’s. I’m not modest about that [studio] recording because that was as close to perfection as I could get.
Are there other recordings you’re especially proud of?
If you’re talking about a single, there’s a Decca I made of “These Foolish Things” that’s not easy to find. It’s with the full band, and I play a cadenza that I don’t think can ever be bettered. That and “Star Dust,” with Billy Butterfield on the trumpet, are my best work on recordings.
My ease in alt, the very high notes in the upper register, had nothing to do with mouthpieces. I used a standard hard-rubber mouthpiece for almost all of my work. In fact, most of us “doublers” would carry just the [clarinet] mouthpiece with the reed and ligature and the cap on it and borrow a clarinet from somebody else during a session.
Did you use one brand of clarinet during your whole career?
I had three. Two of them were Selmers. A Selmer has what I’d call a “shout” to it—a lot of volume, which is what you need in a big band. I did almost all of my playing with one of those two Selmers. You always have two because clarinets are delicate in a way—a pad can come loose, or a spring can come off the key, or maybe a spring will break, and you’re out of luck if you don’t have a back-up. So I had two identical Selmers, and a little later I used a Buffet [clarinet], which has a softer, more intimate sound than a Selmer.
This register thing, while I’m on the subject, isn’t something that a professional clarinetist gives any thought to when he’s performing. Registers and fingering and those kinds of things are for students and teachers. A professional gives no more thought to fingering and registers than he would his left or right arm. Your arms have distinct parts—joints in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, not to mention veins, arteries, tendons and nerves. But when you’re using your arms, you don’t think about those individual parts. Your arms move naturally, as a whole.
A “pro” plays the clarinet that same way. You play the instrument as a whole. You don’t give a damn about fingering and registers because you mastered them long, long ago. You don’t care what key you’re playing in, or how many high notes the arrangement calls for because you can play anything in any key.
Let me go back to mouthpieces, which you asked about. I never had anything special done to the mouthpieces I used. The same with reeds: I used a #3 or sometimes a #4 cane reed, and I would wet-sand the reeds until they sounded just right to me. I did try a couple synthetic reeds toward the end of my career, but they weren’t any good. Today, they’re probably a lot better, I don’t know. It wouldn’t matter anyway because I haven’t touched a clarinet since I quit the business.
Is it true that you didn’t read music when you began playing professionally?
Yes—I played by ear at first. I was playing sax then. In those days, the sax is what the electric guitar is today. Everybody wanted to be a sax player, and although I was basically self-taught, I had a very good tone and I had no trouble getting work in and around New Haven. One day, I got an audition for a pit band at one of the Poli vaudeville theaters in Connecticut. When I got there, the leader handed me the sheet music of the arrangement and told me to play it for my audition. I told him I didn’t read music, so of course he told me I couldn’t get the gig.
I asked him if he would give me an audition again a month later. He said he would give me another shot at it, if I learned to read music. One month later, with the help of a piano teacher I knew, I was able to sight-read quite well, and from then on I was never out of work. When I played in two Midwest bands—the Austin Wylie band in Cleveland, and the Joe Cantor band in Cincinnati—I wasn’t just their lead clarinet and sax player, but I also wrote most of the arrangements for those bands.
You have had a second career, and a very successful one, as a writer. There is a story that your writing is what got you to California the first time you went there.
Before I quit school, which was when I was sixteen, I wrote an essay that won first prize, which was an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. That was the start of my writing career. I’ve written several books, and The Trouble with Cinderella in particular sold very well. I’ve been writing all my life, and I’m still writing today. I’m working on a book that will probably be the death of me. The manuscript is over 1,000 pages so far, and I’m nowhere near the end. At the rate I’m going, even though I work on it nearly every day, that book will probably become my “unfinished symphony.”
Artie Shaw, author
When you went to Hollywood, it is said that you got to sit in with one of the top bands of that era.
I was sixteen and playing sax by then, and I was able to play with an outfit that was a sort of “first,” a band that was led by a drummer. [Gus Haenschen interjects, “Abe Lyman’s orchestra. I went there to sign and record him for Brunswick.”] He was the first drummer I know of who led a band. He had his complete set [of drums] on the stage with him. He was a nice guy for a big band leader—at least he was to me. He asked me to play for him, and he let me sit in a few times. And he paid me too.
Abe Lyman (at the drums) and his orchestra in “Paramount on Parade.” Lyman was “was a nice guy for a big band leader,” Shaw recalled, “at least he was to me.”
Two other drummers who became bandleaders, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, played with your orchestras at different times, if I’m correct.
Not Krupa, no. Buddy Rich, yes.
I’m sure you heard Gene Krupa in his prime, so how did he compare with Buddy Rich in your estimation?
No contest—Rich is the best damned drummer, period. He’s a feisty son of a bitch and off the bandstand when the band was playing at the Lincoln Hotel, we got into shouting matches because he thought his way was the right way for any arrangement. I had to threaten to fire him more times than I could count. But let me tell you, on the bandstand he could do it all.
He’s a perfectionist, which is something I’m familiar with, and he has a reputation for berating players, which is also something I’m familiar with. Now, Krupa was a competent drummer and he led a band that was okay but nothing more—and in a carving contest, Buddy Rich would have eaten him alive.
Artie Shaw, with Cab Calloway looking over his shoulder. Standing behind them are Tony Pastor, Helen Foster, and Buddy Rich.
Did you hear Krupa when he was with Red Nichols and the Five Pennies?
I heard the records but didn’t hear the band “live.” Gus, didn’t you record him at Brunswick? [Haenschen replies that he did, but that most of Nichols’ Brunswick recordings were done after Haenschen left Brunswick.] Most of us who were around then had no respect for Nichols because he copied Bix Beiderbecke. It was the same with Charlie Barnet, who copied Duke Ellington note for note. It was the same with Nichols. He copied Bix and got away with it because Bix destroyed himself.
You knew Bix Beiderbecke personally, am I correct?
I knew Bix very well—we were roommates for a time. Other than Satchmo, who’s in a class of his own, Beiderbecke was the greatest cornet player I ever heard. He was a genius in his own way—he wrote intricate, elegant music and even recorded some of it on the piano. As a cornetist he was different from Satchmo, very different, but he had the purest tone I ever heard. But Bix—it’s such a sad story because you couldn’t get him off alcohol. He got so bad that he couldn’t play.
On the subject of brass “legends,” I’d like to ask you about several beginning with Tommy Dorsey. He and Jimmy Dorsey, together or separately, are now considered big-band and jazz legends. You knew both of them, so how would you assess them as players?
Tommy Dorsey had the purest tone of any trombonist I have ever heard, and his phrasing was first-rate, but he was definitely not a “jazzman.” He was what I call a “melodist,” someone who can play a melodic line with such a pure tone, but that was all. If you want to talk about jazz trombonists, you talk about Jack Teagarden, not Tommy Dorsey. Jimmy Dorsey, on the other hand, was one of the best “doublers” in the business. He was an equally fine clarinetist, and unlike Tommy he could play jazz, he could really improvise.
Where would you place Glenn Miller?
A few inches from the bottom of the barrel. The bottom belongs to ones like Shep Fields, who blew into a glass of water with a straw for his “rippling rhythm.” Who the hell would want a band to be identified by that? That’s like [Lawrence] Welk with that goddamned champagne cork popping.
Shaw rated Glenn Miller (left) “the Lawrence Welk of the big band era.” Shep Fields (right) “blew into a glass of water with a straw…who the hell would want a band to be identified by that?”
Glenn Miller was said to be a fine arranger and worked to get a sound that would give his band definition.
A lot of that came from that movie [“The Glenn Miller Story”]. That and the fact that [Miller] was lost at sea during the war. That was too bad, but almost all of us were overseas and played for the troops in war zones. I was in the Navy and I was playing to GIs at Guadalcanal. So were lots of other bandleaders. Miller’s sound was about as distinctive as Welk’s, now that I think of it. Miller was the Lawrence Welk of the big-band era. Welk can’t play his own instrument worth a shit, and neither could Miller. He’d say that himself—he even said it to a few of his players. He said he didn’t want to take his trombone out of the case if Tommy Dorsey was around, let alone Teagarden.
Shaw and his orchestra entertain the fleet during World War II.
Have there been other bandleaders whom to your knowledge were inept, for want of a better word, as players?
Guy Lombardo would be at the top of that list. The reason he leads the band is because he’s the only one of the Lombardo brothers who couldn’t play an instrument. He used to have a violin on the bandstand to give the impression that he played it, but he didn’t and couldn’t. But what the hell, he found a niche, never changed anything, and is still playing the same stuff his band was playing forty years ago. There’s no challenge to that.
The Lombardos (Guy holding the baton): “Playing the same stuff his band was playing forty years ago. There’s no challenge to that.”
Now, Fred Waring can’t read music but he conducts choral music now—which he learned from [Robert] Shaw, if you don’t know that. I know he couldn’t play anything but a banjo-uke by ear. He had a brother who wrote a couple of good songs and he played piano by ear, and they had a dance bad in the 1920s but Fred got more interested in choral music. I give him credit for what he’s done because he’s a stickler for phrasing and he’s been at it for what, forty years or so?
There are three others I’d like to ask you about. The first is Sammy Kaye. Was he a good player himself?
He was a “doubler,” and he was equally bad on sax as he was on clarinet. Totally unoriginal. He had some good players but he couldn’t keep the best ones because they couldn’t stand the derivative crap he was playing.
The two others I have in mind are Will Osborne and Ozzie Nelson.
Both of them were singers—if you can call what they did “singing”—who formed their own bands. Both of them were nothing but Rudy Vallée imitators as “crooners.” That’s how they got their start. Osborne came up with a gimmick for his “sound.” He had his trombones play glissandos and [he] called it “slide rhythm.” The only good thing about his band was that he stopped singing.
.Ozzie Nelson (left) and Will Osborne (right): “Both of them were singers—if you can call what they did “singing”…the only thing Nelson could do was wave a baton.”
Nelson was on television so long that most people don’t remember that he ever had a band. Which is good because the only thing he could do was wave a baton. One of his sons—the older one, not the one with the rock-and-roll hits—said to some interviewer that he was amazed his father had any career in music because he couldn’t read music, could barely play a sax, and couldn’t sing either. His wife—they weren’t married at the time—was the singer. He had the good sense to hire good arrangers and have others rehearse the band because he couldn’t do it himself. 2
I assume Rudy Vallée is on your “bottom of the barrel list.”
No, he isn’t—not at all. He was stuck with that “crooner” label, but if you put aside his singing and the megaphone and all that, he was a good clarinetist and a good sax player. He learned a lot from Rudy Wiedoeft—that’s where he got his first name, as I think I said before—and he got a lot out of his players. Where he was a real innovator was on radio with his variety shows. He invented the network variety show. He did on radio what Ed Sullivan does on television except that Vallée himself introduced each performer and did all the segues himself.
Continuing with players who led bands, and this time I’m asking about trumpeters who led bands, where would you place Harry James?
A very good horn player, and a very good bandleader. Not top-tier, but very good. Of course, he gave Sinatra his start, and then [Tommy] Dorsey hired Sinatra.
There’s a story that Frank Sinatra asked you instead of Tommy Dorsey to hire him as your vocalist. Is that true?
Yes, and his pitch to me was that I was using women singers instead of him. I had different women singers at different times—Peg LaCentra, Helen Forrest, Billie Holliday—and as I told Frank, I don’t like “boy singers.” He said to me that I did have a boy singer, Tony Pastor, my lead sax man. Frank said, “You call that a singer?” I said yes, Tony does vocals on certain songs we play, and I like him. Frank has never forgiven me for turning him down, but it was the right decision from my standpoint. I wasn’t about to subject myself or the band to a bunch of screaming bobbysoxers.
Later, you had Mel Torme as a vocalist.
Yes, later, and he was fine for certain songs. He’s also easy to work with and sees himself as part of an ensemble and not just “the singer.”
Back to trumpeters, where would you place Dizzy Gillespie and Be-bop?
On the underside of the barrel. Be-bop is pure shit, and it died like it should have. To hear [Gillespie] tell it, and the writers who bought into his berets and his horn with a hard-on and the image he tried to make for himself, thought that be-bop was a new “idiom,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. He also ridiculed Satchmo—he said that Satchmo and the whole New Orleans style was outmoded.
Harry James (left): “Not top-tier, but very good.” Dizzy Gillespie (right): “On the underside of the barrel. Be-bop is pure shit, and it died like it should have.”
Do you remember the first time you heard Louis Armstrong?
Not only do I remember it, but if there was a moment in my life where I could say that something changed me, it was going to Chicago to hear him “live” at the Savoy Ballroom. I was lucky enough to get close enough to the bandstand—it was just a carpeted riser—to hear him play “West End Blues.” The cadenza that he opened “West End Blues” with blew me away. I had never heard anything like it, and every note of it is still fresh in my mind.
Something you have to understand to appreciate him is the difference between valve instruments then and now. Today, a trumpet player can play like lightning because the valves are machined to a degree of precision that wasn’t done in Satchmo’s day. And the springs are different too, which makes a high-end trumpet today easier to play than a trumpet or cornet or valve trombone forty or fifty years ago.
The instruments of today can make a great player even greater. Take the trumpeter who’s with Johnny Carson, Doc Severinsen, who’s a damned good player. If you handed him a horn that Satchmo played in 1920 and had him put his mouthpiece in it and try to play it, he wouldn’t sound so great. None of the ones today would.
All the big bands had theme songs, but yours was unlike any other that I can think of. Why did you make “Nightmare” your theme song?
Because I was told I had to have a theme song for a radio broadcast I was doing that night. I wrote it in about an hour and played it on the air that night. I wrote several arrangements of it to fit different time slots. I could stretch it out or keep it short, depending on how much airtime I was given.
(Left) “Art” Shaw with his New Music on Brunswick, May 1937. (Right) The first commercial recording of “Nightmare,” Shaw’s hastily written new theme song. It was initially issued on Brunswick; the Vocalion was a later release using an alternate take from the same session.
What would have been the typical instrumentation in most of your bands?
Mostly four saxes, two or three trumpets, two trombones, a string bass, a guitar, and drums, either trap drums or whatever was best for a particular arrangement. In the early 1950s I added a string section, which was not done in swing bands, although [Paul] Whiteman had done it long before I did. My string section had ten violins, three violas, two cellos, and a string bass.
Speaking of Paul Whiteman, you were on the bill of his Carnegie Hall concert on Christmas day 1938. You played “St. Louis Blues,” and I’m wondering if the arrangements was your own.
No, It was done by Irving Szathmary, who worked for Whiteman. That was quite a concert because Satchmo was on the program. I did play “St. Louis Blues” but on the printed program the title was “A Mess of Blues” in case I wanted to play more than just the “St. Louis Blues,” but I decided to stick with that as a framework for improvising. I began it at a blues tempo, then switched to a jazz tempo, and at the end I gave a nod to Whiteman, or Whiteman and Gershwin, by playing the glissando from the opening of “Rhapsody in Blue.” I have to say, I did some of my best playing in that concert. 1
What prompted you to name songs that you wrote after streets and airlines?
Songs have to have titles or they don’t get published, so I just used whatever came to my mind at the time. “Summit Ridge Drive” came from the street I was living on at the time. “Nonstop Flight” came from the nonstop flights I had to take so many times.
Your song “Shoot the Liquor to Me, Johnny” wasn’t named after a street or a subway stop. Where did you get that title?
Do both of us a favor and get the title right: it’s “Shoot the Liquor to Me, John Boy.” That’s the working title, but the real title is “Sanfronia B.” Calvin Boze wrote it, and the lyrics were too raunchy at the time to sing on radio or records. Just like “Nightmare,” I had different arrangements of different length so I could fit it into any time slot. I chose it as a showpiece for each section of the band, for Buddy Rich, and for me.
What I had in mind when I arranged it was a “call and response” where I would improvise on the clarinet and each section of the band would have to play what I had just played. It was all carefully rehearsed, including the part near the end where one of the players would shout “Higher!” I would go from the top G to A-flat and then A, then do a descending credenza.
Even the name of the Gramercy Five, if I’m correct, came from your telephone number at that time.
Again, why not? I need a title for the group, and my phone number started with “Gramercy 5” back when telephone exchanges had both letters and numbers.
The Gramercy Five on a seven-inch Bell 78 in 1952. Bell’s roster included some well-known big-band era names, like Artie Shaw and Cab Calloway, who were past their primes from a commercial standpoint but attracting audiences.
Your Gramercy Five recordings have been re-released in LP form, and surely will be re-released in formats that we can’t even envision yet. I know that the players you chose for those sessions varied, but whom did you choose and why?
I had Billy Butterfield on trumpet, and after Billy I had Roy Eldridge. Irv Kluger was on drums, Joe Roland on vibes, Tal Farlowe on guitar, Ray Conniff on trombone, and if I used a piano in the session I wanted Hank Jones. I was listening to a lot of classical instrumental music at the time, and I was intrigued by how a harpsichord would sound so I had Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord. I chose all of them because they were “explorers” who could follow me wherever I was going in those sessions.
There was a time in the 1940s when you shaved your head. There are photos of you with what looks like the kind of haircut that a Marine boot camp is known for. Why prompted you to do that?
As I said, I was listening to a lot of classical instrumental music. Stravinsky was my first foray into classical, and then came Debussy, and from there it was Bartok. Naturally, what they were doing, especially Stravinsky, got into some of my arrangements and I got criticized for it. Some of the magazines said I was becoming a “long-hair,” which was a euphemism for a classical musician.
My way of retaliating was that if they were going to call me a “long-hair,” how about I cut off all my hair? What are they going to call me then? Unfortunately, I was starting to lose my hair and ended up being as bald as a billiard ball. But shaving my hair down to the scalp made a point at the time. At least I thought it did.
Do you consider your Gramercy Five records to be jazz?
No. There isn’t really a name for what we did in those sessions. I was exploring, and they were exploring with me. Sometimes it took a dozen or more “takes” before I felt I had gotten what I wanted. Now, doing ten or twelve or fifteen “takes” would drive most players nuts. But not those guys—they were “explorers” and we were exploring together on those recordings. And as I said, I used my Buffet clarinet in those sessions because its tone was intimate. I played so close to the microphone that at times you can hear the keys clicking as I’m playing.
You played classical clarinet compositions. How different was it to play, say, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or the Brahms Quintet from the type of popular music you were known for?
You have to use less vibrato and less volume when you play classical clarinet. My tone was the same, just softer and with less vibrato. There too I used the Buffet, which is what most classical clarinetists play, or did at that time. 3
This is a difficult question for me to ask because I can’t find the right words for it, but film footage of your playing tends to show that you were self-taught because of the positions of your fingers.
I don’t know what you mean by that. Are you talking about alternative fingerings in the upper register?
No, I’m referring to how high you lift each finger, no matter how fast you’re playing. Clarinet teachers always stress the importance of keeping the fingers close to the keys so that fast passages can be played more easily. But you raised your fingers very high, no matter at what tempo you were playing.
Like I said, I’m an auto-didact and I learned where to put the fingers and thumbs from charts in a book. It didn’t say anything about keeping the fingers close to the keys. Now, I did make sure that the keys themselves, the ones with holes and the ones with pads, were close to the holes in the body of the instrument. But I never gave any thought to how high I raised my fingers.
Have you ever been tempted to take one of your clarinets out of its case and play it again?
I swore I never would, but several years ago I decided to try out my favorite Selmer. I took it all apart, cleaned all the holes, oiled the keys, changed all the pads, re-corked the different sections, took out a couple of the reeds that still looked good, and tried to see what I could do.
I asked my wife to leave the house—I didn’t want anyone around because I knew my fingering would be off and my embouchure would be too weak. I worked at it for about two hours, but I couldn’t even get a decent tone in the lower register. So I put it away for good.
Artie Shaw lecturing at age eighty
1 Although the title of Shaw’s part in the program was titled “The Blues” rather than “A Mess of Blues,” he received some of the finest reviews of his career from the major critics of that period. From The New York Times, December 26, 1938: “As if to appease the in-the-groovers, Artie Shaw’s clarinet soloing of his own composition, ‘The Blues,’ was a distinguished 16-minute performance with the full Whiteman band. Irving Szathmary scored it and Shaw got things out of his clarinet that were amazing in sheer virtuosity. His blends of the immortal ‘St. Louis Blues’ were but incidental to the major Magyar mood of the ‘Blues.'” From Variety, review by Abel Green: “The audience loosed its enthusiasm on the appearance of Artie Shaw, variously described in the program as ‘The greatest clarinet player in New York,’ ‘The greatest clarinet player in the United States’ and ‘The greatest clarinet player in the world.’ Playing ‘The Blues,’ a composition of his own, arranged by Irving Szathmary, Mr. Shaw’s wild improvisation evoked from Mr. [narrator Deems] Taylor the remark that ‘you just can’t do things like that with a clarinet.'”
2 Rudy Vallee and Ozzie Nelson appeared in the 1946 Paramount musical comedy “People Are Funny.” In their only scene together, Vallee notices a small megaphone on the piano and says to Nelson, “Hmm … a megaphone. How well I remember them. I used to have one myself—at Yale, you know—as a bit of a singer. I had a rather unusual quality. This enhanced it.”
3 Shaw used a Buffet A-clarinet and a Buffet E-flat clarinet for performances of classical instrumental music.
Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. No portion of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or used for commercial purposes, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright owner.