Story Bites

The King of Clarinet

Born in 1910 as Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City, Artie Shaw grew up in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, where he faced antisemitism from the locals. He was attracted to the saxophone around the age of 12 but switched to the clarinet at the age of 16. He developed musical skills at a young age, but his local bandleader did not hire him because he couldn’t sight-read music. Shaw went away to learn sight-reading and was back in a month. He soon quit school to play tour on the road full time.

At the beginning of his career, Artie was a performer who worked with many bands and orchestras, where he earned a good reputation as a director and arranger of bands and orchestras. He worked as a studio musician, in which he performed commercial music that he often didn’t like. However, he was handsomely paid during the height of the Depression. One of his musical projects was hiring Billie Holiday (an African American singer) for his band and touring the South. During a time of segregation, this was a significant move, making him one of the first white musicians to break the racial barrier at the time. During the peak of his career, he was earning $60,000 per week, which in today’s dollars would be about $600,000.

When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the US Navy and formed a band during his military service. He used his talent in entertaining Navy personnel of the Pacific theater to raise the troop morale. However, due to performing multiple events a day, Antie came to a state of physical exhaustion and received a medical discharge.

Two tendencies defined his career in music. The first was his ability to form and manage a band to produce the best records and material that were widely loved by audiences. He was much like a serial entrepreneur; he would create a band, develop the band to produce songs that would satisfy the audiences of the time, and then disband the group. His second tendency was his unorthodox taste in music and his inclination to innovate with the themes of his time. An example of this is when he gained attention for his “Interlude in B-flat” at a swing concert at the Imperial Theater in New York. The show combined elements of jazz and classical music and was very well received. But because the sound was not commercial, he was forced to dissolve that band.

The commercial aspect was one thing that Shaw did not love about the music business. He found commercial music to be boring and was not passionate about his work. He didn’t get to make the music that he wanted; instead, he had to play the music that others wanted. In combination with his distaste for fame and celebrity status, this fact made him quit the show business in 1954. While he was involved in some projects after his retirement, his career has shifted from music to writing, which he loved very much.

Artie can be seen as an example of someone who succeeded in something he didn’t love. He tried to retire from the music business three times as it did not seem to fulfill his desire for innovation. Yet, he still succeeded at it with his skill, hard work, and his ability to form successful bands. While he did retire early, his work was significant as his fans often called him at the time “The King of Clarinet.”

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