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PROFILE / ARTIE SHAW : His Sound of Music Is an 'Electronic Encyclopedia' : Famed bandleader of '40s, also noted for a bevy of beautiful wives, plans to encompass entire history of jazz in computerized project.

March 24, 1994|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Artie Shaw is writing. At his spacious, book-lined home in Newbury Park, the former swing giant, the quondam virtuoso clarinetist who this year celebrates his 40th anniversary of not playing music, is as busy as he has ever been, but with a marked difference. In the silence of his lonely room, he is free of the autograph hungry fans, far from the pressures of fame that drove him in disgust and disillusionment from the business that made him rich and famous.

Shaw today is primarily a writer, simultaneously involved in three undertakings--first, a massive venture to be known as "The Electronic Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz," completion of which he predicts will take at least five years; second, his supervision of the reissue of recordings on which he played in the late 1940s, and third, continuing work on a trilogy, "The Education of Albie Snow," supposedly a work of fiction, although he won't deny the autobiographical overtones.

"I've been working on that trilogy for 15 years on and off," he said the other day. "There have been interruptions: I published another book in the meanwhile, worked in CD reissues and went out with the orchestra to get it established." (Yes, there is an Artie Shaw band today, using some of his music, with Dick Johnson as leader and clarinetist.)

Shaw's contemporaries, even fans a decade or two his junior, have vivid recollections of the high and low lights of the years in music: his storming of the swing world with the chart-topping record of "Begin the Beguine" in 1938; the shock of his sudden retirement in 1939; his return the following year to form a larger and equally successful ensemble with such hits as "Frenesi," his various large and small groups ending with a final small combo in 1954 and, of course, the marriages, which enabled Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Doris Dowling, Evelyn Keyes et al, at one time or another, to call themselves Mrs. Shaw.

This all happened long after Part I of the trilogy, which will be called "Sideman." It deals with the early struggling days ("I pick Albie up at age 15, at a lake in Wisconsin"), and his aim at fame.

"Part II," Shaw said, "will cover the period of the big successes, up to the end of World War II. A lot of that ground was covered in 'The Trouble With Cinderella.' " (This openly autobiographical book was published in 1952.)

Currently, he is working on Part III, which he said "deals with the difficulties that go with success, with my dislike of celebrity and all the b.s. that went with it. I became a celebrity in spite of myself, and hated it, so I quit and went to Spain, where I found a lifestyle that made some sense to me.

"The ending, though, will be strictly fiction, projecting a dramatic view of what could have been the truth. I have to try to winnow it down--there's so much involved here--it's not just music: it's books, it's science, it's sex, it's painting, it's a guy swallowing up the arts trying to find out what life is all about."

Despite the all-encompassing interests of Albie/Artie, his interest in jazz and its propagation has never flagged, as his "Electronic Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz" makes clear. "It will be designed," Shaw said, "as a computerized, user-friendly compendium of information accessible through all the digital domain. There'll be histories, biographies, photographs, films, videos and, of course, the music itself, all available through CD-ROM or any other present or future access source."

Collaborating in the project is the jazz studies department of the University of Arizona. Partial funding has been provided, and various foundations are being approached for further support.

"The basic aim," Shaw said, "will be to answer the question 'What is jazz?' You can't describe jazz any more than you can describe bread to a blind man. So we'll have the music plus annotations and commentary by the most authoritative, scholarly people we can find. I'll be involved as a steerer, chairing an advisory board with people like John Lewis, Whitney Balliett, Lionel Hampton, Marian McPartland, Phil Woods, Joe Williams, Quincy Jones. Nobody who hasn't had a real history in jazz should be on the letterhead.

"We'll wind up with an authoritative research foundation, with a scholarly committee to dig up material--the piano rolls, the records and tapes, whatever. We'll have the most important people still around as speakers, and we'll deal with the subject by decades; for the 1920s, we can do it every five years, but for the later decades, we'll need to do it every one year to cover all the changes."

Shaw's original plan called simply for the use of LPs, but the new technologies such as CD-ROM will bring new accessibility to the plan. "We'll do interviews with whoever's around," he said, "and for those who are gone--people like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong--we'll quote from their books and early interviews."

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