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Lunch With Artie Shaw

AN EARLIER POST mentioned Artie Shaw. I presume anyone reading this knows Artie was a big band leader in the 1930s and ’40s and one of the best popular clarinetists of all time.

One day around 1980 my friend (and another big band leader), Pat Longo, asked if I wanted to have lunch with Artie. Of course I did. Pat was friendly with Artie and arranged it. A few days later we drove to Thousand Oaks and found Artie sipping iced tea in a booth at the very back of the Velvet Turtle restaurant.

I was expecting a tall, dark haired, good looking guy; the image I remembered from photos of Artie from the 1940s. The man sitting at the table was in his middle seventies, of average height, bald on top with short gray hair, only vaguely reminiscent of those old photos. But what a personality and intellect!

Artie had given up the clarinet in the mid 1950s and he spent a lot of our time together explaining why: The record companies insisted on dictating what he could play and Artie was far too independent to accept their conditions.

He had seen jazz change direction in the late 1940s. Bebop was all the rage and, if you were unable to play it, jazz would leave you behind. Artie knew popular music was moving in a different direction from jazz and excluded his instrument; to survive he stuck with jazz. Clarinet was the wrong instrument for the kind of music that would become rock. So for a couple of years he practiced six or more hours a day, put together a group of top young jazz musicians, and found work at a club. I thought Artie had said it was in Las Vegas but, according to CD liner notes, the club was the Embers in New York. His group came together there and, in the mid ’50s, they recorded a few hours of music, all in the bop style.

Who was on the sessions? Hank Jones (piano), Tal Farlow or Joe Puma (guitar), Tommy Potter (bass), Joe Roland (vibes), and Irv Kluger (drums).

Artie said they would work all night in the nightclub, stop at one or two o’clock in the morning, then head for a studio and record until dawn. They also recorded in Hollywood. Artie claimed to have financed the sessions. Altogether the group recorded about three dozen tunes. Artie said his technique was at its zenith. I have heard the recordings. He was right.

But the music was straight ahead jazz and the world knew Artie Shaw as a big band clarinetist from the Swing era. One after another the record companies refused to release Artie’s recordings. He said they wanted a remake of Begin the Beguine or Frenesi in the old style. “Sorry, Artie,” they said, “Bop is not what the public wants from you. We doubt anyone will buy it and we won’t risk anything to find out.”

Artie argued. He fought. He may even have spoken to a lawyer. But he lost the battle. So he stopped playing. Forever. He had rejected the music business a couple of times before but, in the mid ’50s, it was final. He made one clarinet into a table lamp. He became a writer. That was the end of Artie the musician.

But about thirty years later Artie Shaw’s recordings did appear. Book Of The Month Club Records offered them on CD. I have all four disks. Artie plays bebop and sounds wonderful.

Everything Artie Shaw said about the music business and about music at that lunch has proved to be true. Every word. My only regret is that I never was able to tell him.

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