Artie Shaw, one of the most popular bandleaders of the big-band era and the choice of many critics and musicians as the best clarinet player in jazz history, died on Thursday at his home outside Los Angeles. The ”Begin the Beguine” hitmaker was 94 and apparently died of natural causes.
As a swing bandleader in the 1930s and ’40s, Shaw aspired to be considered a high-minded composer of art music, but his popularity kept getting in the way, with fans always clamoring to hear such monster hits as ”Begin the Beguine” and ”Frenesi.” Though he loathed the comparison, he was inevitably likened to Benny Goodman. Both were immensely popular, clarinet-playing big-band leaders, both were children of Jewish immigrants (Shaw’s given name was Arshawsky), and both had been among the earliest white ensemble leaders to integrate their groups racially (Goodman with players like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, Shaw with Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge). During World War II, he joined the Navy and formed a band that crisscrossed the globe playing for U.S. troops; the band literally toured to exhaustion, leading to Shaw’s medical discharge.
In 1954, he gave up the clarinet altogether, explaining that he’d taken his mastery of the instrument as far as he could go and had quit rather than let further mastery elude his grasp. For the next three decades, he wrote books and taught college, living off his reputation as a jazz perfectionist and serial monogamist (he was married and divorced eight times to some of the most famous and beautiful women of his era, including screen goddesses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, Gone With the Wind starlet Evelyn Keyes, and Kathleen Winsor, author of the bestselling novel Forever Amber.) In 1983, Shaw reformed his band but served only as conductor, leaving the clarinet to another player. He was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.
Shaw was never shy about his opinions, especially about musicians he considered his inferiors, like Goodman. He was one of the most outspoken of the pundits who talked on camera in Ken Burns’ 2001 PBS series Jazz. Reviewing a documentary video about his contemporary Glenn Miller for EW in 1993, Shaw wrote of his fellow wartime bandleader (who died in a plane crash while touring during the war), ”All I can say is that Glenn should have lived, and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ should have died.” He also wrote, regarding the obsessiveness of musicians (though not the ”very square” Miller, who ”had a mind like an accountant”), ”The old gag is that you don’t have to be crazy to be a good musician, but it helps. Anybody who’s determined to strive for perfection has got to be a little crazy.” No doubt he considered himself living proof.