At his peak in the 1930s and '40s, Artie Shaw, the brilliant clarinetist and bandleader, ranked with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller as musicians whose swinging tunes kept a generation ju
At his peak in the 1930s and '40s, Artie Shaw, the brilliant clarinetist and bandleader, ranked with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller as musicians whose swinging tunes kept a generation jumping and jittering. The jazz legend who epitomized the Big Band era with hits such as "Begin the Beguine" and "Stardust" before abandoning the music world for writing and other pursuits, died yesterday (Dec. 30) in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 94.
Shaw had long suffered from adult onset diabetes and likely died of complications of the disease, said Larry Rose, his personal assistant since 1993. "He just reached a point where he was tired of fighting. He wasn't able to really enjoy life anymore," Rose said.
Shaw's attorney and longtime friend Eddie Ezor said he had been in declining health for some time and died at his home.
His band's recording of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" topped the charts for six weeks in 1938 and made Shaw famous at age 28. Among his other hits, some with his big band and some with his quartet, the Gramercy Five: "Frenesi," "Dancing in the Dark," "Nightmare," "Back Bay Shuffle," "Accent-tchu-ate the Positive," "Traffic Jam," "They Say," "Moonglow," "Stardust," "Thanks for Ev'rything," "Summit Ridge Drive" and "My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue."
Another famous roster: his wives. They included actresses Lana Turner (wife No. 3, 1940), Ava Gardner (No. 5, 1945), and Evelyn Keyes (No. 8, 1957) and novelist Kathleen Winsor, author of the 1944 best-seller "Forever Amber" (No. 6, 1946).
Entertainment mogul Merv Griffin, a former big band crooner, praised Shaw's musical accomplishments and said his romantic exploits made him the "Howard Hughes of the clarinet."
After his first burst of stardom, his good looks made Hollywood come calling. It was while filming "Dancing Coed" in 1939 that he met Turner. In 1940, he appeared in another musical, "Second Chorus," and got two Academy Award nominations for his musical contributions -- for best score and best song ("Love of My Life").
Shaw, however, eventually chafed at his stardom and loss of privacy. A volatile and superbly intelligent man, he had little use for signing autographs and once caused an uproar by called jitterbugging fans "morons." He later said he was just referring to the rowdy ones.
"I was about as utterly miserable as a fellow can possibly be and still stay on this side of suicide," he once said.
Shaw had a love-hate relationship with the song that brought him fame, tiring of "Begin the Beguine " and wishing audiences were more willing to accept new material. ("I mean, it's a good tune if you are going to be associated with one tune, but I didn't want that.")
After finally putting down his clarinet for good in the mid-'50s, he lived in Spain for a time, operated a farm, and turned to literature full-time; he was a voracious reader from childhood, and had produced a well-received autobiography, "The Trouble with Cinderella," in 1952.
"I did all you can do with a clarinet," he said. "Any more would have been less."
Shaw put out two collections of short fiction, "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!" and "The Best of Intentions." He spent years working on a voluminous autobiographical novel tracing the rise of a young jazz musician, whom he called Albie Snow.
Shaw, who had gone blind in the past two years, "wasn't just a musician, he was a master storyteller. He could tell a fabulous story either with his clarinet or with the pen. He was highly skilled at crafting a story," Rose said.
Shaw left a planned box set of his work incomplete after his health began deteriorating when he broke his left leg in 1995, Rose said. It was to have been titled "Good Enough Ain't Good Enough." That means "you strive for perfection. He was a perfectionist," Ezor said. There will also be an Artie Shaw Foundation.
Shaw was born Arthur Arshawsky on May 23, 1910, in New York; his immigrant parents struggled to earn a living in the clothing business. He began his professional career while still in his teens, first playing saxophone, then switching to clarinet to take advantage of a job opportunity.
By the time he was in his early 20s, he was a highly paid member of a CBS radio orchestra. After the first of his many retirements from the music business, he returned to New York and began assembling his first orchestra. "Begin the Beguine" and fame followed not long afterward.
He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and wound up spending most of his time leading a band, giving shows for the troops.
His only musical activity in recent years was conducting a revival band he organized in the early 1980s, featuring arrangements Shaw's bands had used in the past. He did not play his clarinet.
Shaw was often asked about his supposed rivalry with fellow clarinetist Goodman. He said: "Benny, who was every bit as dedicated as I was, wanted to be an instrumentalist -- he was a superb technician -- while I wanted to be a musician. I think my mind was more complex than his."
Funeral arrangements were pending, but public services were expected to be held in early January in Westlake Village, Rose said.
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