Can anyone today imagine a clarinettist as a superstar the size of, say, Mick Jagger? Or God forbid, the ghastly Madonna? Well, 60 years or so ago, the biggest star in Hollywood, as well as the biggest stud, was Artie Shaw, whose combination of good looks, extraordinary musical talent, and great intelligence made him the brightest star among the dumb (not all) celluloid ones under the California sky.
Why have very few of you ever heard of him? That’s an easy one to answer. Most of you are young and think that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles are as old as Beethoven, if not quite as deaf. No, the reason Artie is unknown is because he quit the music business in the mid-50’s, during his prime, retired, and stayed retired until his death at 94 four years ago. He gave up the clarinet in order to write books—a book, rather—and he wrote that book until the end, 10,000 chapters or so. It was, unsurprisingly, never published. Many of his articles about jazz, or the state of jazz, were, as were his articles about the state of the human condition. (Curmudgeonly, to say the least.)
He was born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, the son of Jewish immigrants, and married eight times. Among his wives—and check this—were Ava Gardner, the smoldering beauty from the deep South that drove men mad, certainly yours truly; Lana Turner, the blonde that went through men like a hot knife through butter; Kathleen Winsor, the novelist (Forever Amber), who was more beautiful than her heroines and twice as sexy; Evelyn Keyes, Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister in Gone With the Wind; and four other beauties that Hugh Hefner would give away his equity in Playboy Corporation to possess. Oh yes, I almost forgot. He left Betty Grable at the altar for Lana Turner, a big mistake as far as I’m concerned, because for me Betty was the most deliciously wholesome as well as sexy movie star in America, when America still represented everything everyone desired. It was said at the time that she never got over it. Well, it sounds good, but get over it she did when she married Harry James, the great trumpeter, but she did stay loyal to the artist by marrying a man who played music almost as sweet as Artie’s.
So much for Artie Shaw as Don Giovanni. Ava, Lana, Betty, Kathleen, Evelyn, and hundreds of others. Let ugly feminists rail against Lotharios. A Lothario is simply a man women say yes to. And a woman who says yes to every man is—well, we all know the answer to that one. Famous beauties may have added to Shaw’s mystique, but it was raw talent that lay behind the myth. And he let it all go with a short note to Duke Ellington in 1955:
There is too much dishonesty, lack of dignity, and cheap compromises of every possible sort . . . a business bristling with names built solely on willingness to cater to cheapness, shoddiness and ignorance on mass tastes. I congratulate you, Duke, for functioning with integrity.
Now there was an honest man.
When Shaw retired he walked away from $60,000 per week, a colossal sum in those days, days in which his band was number one in the United States. Talk about style, and then some. Artie Shaw was the greatest clarinetist of all time. He concluded all his concerts by hitting a cosmic high with his C at the end of his own creation, “Concerto for Clarinet.” Here are some of his greatest hits: “Begin the Beguine,” “Frenesi,” “Star Dust,” and hundreds of other recordings I was lucky to hear time and again while growing up. A friend was a fan. Shaw hired Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Hank Jones, Tommy Potter, Mel Torme, Billie Butterfield, Max Kaminsky, and Buddy Rich. He volunteered for the U.S. Navy in World War II, served and performed under fire in the Pacific, and collected over 15,000 books. His great rival, Benny Goodman, was not a nice man, and in a band niceness and human relations count a lot. Duke Ellington’s clarinetist Barney Bigard called Artie “simply the best,” as did others in his field. He lived incognito the last 30 years of his life in Los Angeles but kept busy, spending his days investigating the possibilities of language. He was my idol when I was a very young man because of his music and his women, not necessarily in that order. I associate him with every young girl I danced with or kissed to his music. Now I love him for having walked away, Achilles-like, but unlike my fellow Greek, never making a comeback.
And he knew what he was doing. Rock music is the single most blatant stigma of the death of civilization, and Artie Shaw saw it coming before anyone else. In Dante’s Inferno, deceivers are dispatched to the eighth circle of Hell enduring cruel enough punishment, but traitors are sent to the ninth, for even greater torment. Modern cacophony—I refuse to call it music—and those who have enriched themselves by it are both deceivers and traitors. Alas, 300 million morons in the United States alone, and hundreds of millions elsewhere, go weak at the knees at the sight of odious, untalented, ugly, hirsute, cacophonous so-called rock stars, as bitter an irony as the fact that Mozart died broke. Artie Shaw, a very good-looking man with great knowledge and even greater curiosity, decided to opt out at the top. Let’s call him the Cincinnatus of sweet music.