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February 16, 2005

Goodbye Mr. Shaw

It came as a shock to me, and perhaps to you, too, but there it was in the Sunday newspaper: A reference to the death of Artie Shaw last December 30 when he was 94 years of age. Such an obscure notice for one who had a tremendous impact on the hearts and minds of this country's young people more than sixty years ago. He was probably the last of the great swing band leaders.

The story of Artie Shaw began when he was growing up, trying to decide between a career in music and writing. He originally chose music about the same time swing became the hottest thing in entertainment, and his orchestra was a great attraction wherever it played in supper clubs, theaters, or any of the big dance venues located all around this great country.

He was a handsome young man who liked the ladies, and they liked him in return. His orchestra was wildly successful but he tried different approaches to the music and formed a number of big bands during his career. Perhaps he is best known for his recording of several tunes, such as Temptation and Begin the Beguine or a half-dozen others, and you probably have your own favorite, but his addition of strings and other instrumentation to a highly successful band in the late 1930s really split his fans. Some liked the new version of Frenesi, others were turned off. He didn't care. He orchestrated and arranged to please himself, and in the meantime he turned out some best-selling contemporary mysteries.

Then one day he quit the music business for good, dropping the band and concentrating on writing (and sexy movie stars). Fans pleaded and entertainment writers pondered the move, but he had made up his mind and the Artie Shaw band era was over in the 1940s. He was tired of playing Begin the Beguine the same way so many times, and he loved the writing craft. The last I heard of him was a few years ago when a record company released a "newly found" collection of tunes by the Glenn Miller band. Asked for his opinion, Artie said tartly: "Glenn and I were not in the same business." Phooey. They were both chasing the same dollars and they both had wonderful bands. I'm glad Mr. Shaw survived as long as he did, but I am sorry that he never lost that sharp tongue. I will miss his music and the sound of his clarinet.